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Billings schools see general testing dip in math proficiency, increase in reading

Board also ratifies teachers union contract
Posted at 11:29 PM, Nov 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-17 01:29:36-05

BILLINGS — Based on standardized testing data, kindergarten through fifth grade students in Billings School District 2 generally performed better in reading and worse in math compared to this time last year, trustees heard at a Monday school board meeting.

Roger Dereszynski, the school district's assessment coordinator, presented the results from the Northwest Evaluation Association and FastBridge standardized tests administered to students to track proficiency in reading and math.

Results either companies test are slightly different but generally have four categories. It breaks down the percentage of students in individual schools into advanced, proficient, not meeting benchmark, and intensive students who aren't proficient. The categories have a corresponding scale of blue, green, yellow and red, respectively.

Dereszynski reported that kindergarten general reading percentages were up 2 percent compared to the same time last year, while grades one and two saw general drops in reading proficiency. Kindergarten math similarly saw 2 percent improvement, while first grade dropped 5 percent and second grade dropped 10 percent compared to last year.

“Certainly those fundamental skills that we’re really trying hard to instill in our kids are really hard to do when you shut down a school and you try to provide basic literacy instruction over the internet. It’s difficult. That is certainly going to contribute to some of that first and second grade (drop)," Dereszynski said.

Data showing general percentage change from year to year for grades 3 - 5 was not completely presented at the meeting. Dereszynski said reading improved in third grade by five percent compared to last year and fourth grade had two percent reading improvement. Math proficiency was down 7 percent for third grade and down by 14 percent in fourth grade.

Click here to see the complete data for the Billings school grades kindergarten through fifth grade.

The testing data does not include data from remote learning students in grades kindergarten through second. Dereszynski said there is no practical way to administer the test remotely and the student needs to be seen one-on-one. Remote students in third through fifth grades were tested and their data is included in the charts.

Dereszynski said he sees a downward trend of students moving from green (higher level) to the lower yellow or red categories, which raises concern.

“Again, these are different groups of kids, but what we’ve noticed is largely the losses that we’re seeing in the proficient category are ending up in that red category, novice or high-risk area. That is concerning, definitely something we need to look at and address deeper in our buildings. Especially as we’re planning remediation," Dereszynski said.

District Superintendent Greg Upham gave two reasons for the general student success in reading and decline in math. One is that teachers have been working harder to teach for the material that will be tested. The other is that reading is generally easier for parents to teach at home.

“Math isn’t as easy to help at home. What you find is that by third grade, that if students don’t have fractions down, they will struggle with algebra and pre-algebra," Upham said.

Upham and Dereszynski mentioned the success shown in the data by three kindergarten summer reading programs in helping student proficiency. Upham said the district will have to look to more programs like that to allow students more time in the classroom to get up to speed.

“This isn’t a little thing. This is a very big thing because if we can’t get those students on grade level and there is an increased percentage of them by the time that we should strive to have at least 80 percent of our fifth graders leave to middle school on grade level. If not, it’s easy to see what happens," Upham said.

Last year, the district cut $4.2 million to balance the elementary school budget which included positions like reading and math interventionists to help bolster students learning. Another thing working against the elementary budget is a possible $365,000 loss from a drop in enrollment largely brought about by students switching to home schooling during the pandemic.

“We reduced 11 interventionists because of our budget deficit. So, we’re in a catch 22 with this. Moving forward, I anticipate having to go into the elementary budget again and find reductions moving forward. I don’t want to point the finger that we aren’t doing what we need to do, but we’re not doing as well as we need to do and we need to continue to work,” Upham said.

At the beginning of the meeting, the board unanimously ratified a one-year contract with the Billings Teachers Association. The contract included a 0.5 percent raise in each salary cycle and a one-time $1,500 bonus for essential worker pay.

Trustees mentioned how a consensus approach was taken to negotiations, which is a longer process with more dialogue that is based more on data and conversation than passing notes back and fourth across the table.

"As I look at it, it was conversational. It took a while to get there and it was frank honesty as we sat around the table to talk about issues that were near and dear to the hearts of the educators. I really appreciated the frank honesty that we had and the fact that we could talk about difficult issues respectfully," said Greta Besch Moen, school board chair.