MONTELLO — The Montello School District is looking to improve the testing performance of its middle school students and high school juniors after the district finished in the category of “meets few expectations” in state report cards.

Montello finished with an overall score of 62.4, up from last year’s 59.2 and less than a point from finishing in the category of “meets expectations” (63 to 72.9) — the category Montello will strive to reach next year.

“We’re on path,” District Administrator Margaret Banker said, “and I think you can expect greater things from us in the future.”

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction determines the scores for school districts based on four areas:

  • Student achievement (using state assessments);
  • Student growth (improvement in scores from one year to the next);
  • Closing the achievement gaps for various subgroups (how a district’s economically disadvantaged students compare with its students who do not live in poverty); and
  • Post-secondary readiness, which factors things like graduation and attendance rates.

In order to improve math and reading achievement in grades 6-8 and 11, Banker said the district will work to motivate students leading up to and during state testing, “supporting them so they won’t get stuck.” Banker and other administrators across the state have noted that engaging students in state testing — which is separate from their curriculum, occurs over short period of time and has no impact on a student’s school grades — is often the biggest challenge.

“We want to challenge them to do what they can do — it’s about unlocking their potential,” Banker said. “So we’ll look at how teachers plan for and deliver lessons, (and) look at the student work to see if they’re making gains.

“So we’re thinking about our instructional approach.”

Montello will use additional testing — such as the “i-Ready Diagnostic Assessment” — to measure success and hone its instructional approach. In the fall, more than 70 percent of Montello students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade tested well in reading and math using i-Ready, Banker shared in an email. The i-Ready reading and math numbers were below 50 percent for grades 6-12, and the district is now employing “i-Ready interventions” in math and reading for those students who need it the most.

The district will also add more ACT preparation periods for its junior class, beginning this month, to get them ready for ACT testing in the spring.

Small samples

Banker sees state testing as “one measurement” among many, helpful in creating transparency and showing how districts stack up against the others in Wisconsin. But for small districts like Montello — which has 722 students enrolled this year — the scores will sometimes be misleading since smaller sample sizes tend to bring about much variation, she said.

The state determines student achievement using last year’s reading and math scores on the Forward Exam for grades 3-8 and ACT scores for last year’s junior class. The ACT scores, in particular, put smaller districts at a disadvantage if that year’s junior class — always a small sample in Montello — does not perform well, Banker said. Another challenge is that some scores — whether they’re high or low — cannot be used if DPI determines that they might reveal the identity of the students who took the tests.

“I think (state scoring) could be improved, adding measures that make it more proportionate,” Banker said.

One area that could be weighted more heavily for smaller districts is strong attendance, where Montello has scored very well, she said.

“Most of our kids are here every day, and that’s something to celebrate,” Banker said. “That’s part of the story, but not all of it.

“We’re trying to change the narrative (about rural schools). Rural schools are struggling to show we’re viable, awesome places to live.”

Recipe for success

Among the positive takeaways for Montello in this year’s report cards was Forest Lane Community School, advancing its overall score from 62.4 in 2016 to 71.5 this year, Banker said.

“It’s remarkable the kind of progress our elementary school has made in a short period of time,” she said. “Those are considered breakthrough results.”

The recipe Montello’s elementary school used to achieve significant growth this year is the same one the district will apply to improve performance among all grade levels, Banker said: “Strong curriculum, excellent teachers and fierce leadership. That’s the combination that gets those kind of results.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter