Mill Creek on 'needs improvement' list despite meeting targets

Thursday, October 2, 2008 | 6:16 p.m. CDT; updated 9:52 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 2, 2008

COLUMBIA — Sometimes, making par doesn't cut it. For Mill Creek Elementary School, that is the case. Mill Creek soared above the rest of Columbia's elementary schools with its results on last spring's Missouri Assessment Program math test.

Even with high scores, Mill Creek ended up on a list of schools classified as "needs improvement," something principal Mary Sue Gipson says doesn't accurately reflect on the school.

"When you look at it and analyze it, it's very few students who didn't make it," Gipson said. "Fact is, our scores were very good."

Schools land in the "needs improvement" category after failing to meet MAP test proficiency targets in the same subject for two consecutive years. Mill Creek joins Benton and Blue Ridge elementary schools in the "needs improvement" category for the first time this year, while Field and Parkade elementary schools are in their second year.

Missouri students in third, fourth and fifth grades are tested in math and communication arts each spring. A certain percentage of the student body must achieve proficiency each year for the school to maintain its good standing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In 2008, the required level to meet proficiency in Missouri on the math portion of the MAP test was 45 percent.

A school can also be placed in the "needs improvement" category if too many students don't meet the proficiency targets for one of the tests. A school can also be deemed as needing improvement if a small group of students — divided by factors such as race, income and language — fails to meet the same target.

At Mill Creek, there are nine subgroups as designated by the U.S. Department of Education: Asianor Island Pacific, black, Hispanic, American Indian, white, other or non-response, free or reduced lunch, limited English proficiency and individualized education program. Those designations are used as a way of gauging the performance of various groups of people. If students in one of these subgroups don't meet the target, neither does the school as a whole, and that is what happened at Mill Creek. Although 63 percent of all students met the target for proficiency, less than 45 percent of students in two of its subgroups reached proficiency. The performance of one of those subgroups, the black subgroup, resulted in the school being placed in the "needs improvement" category.

Gipson said the "needs improvement" label just means the school didn't meet standards set by the Missouri Department of Education.

"What I tell parents is that (MAP testing) is one measure," Gipson said. "It is one piece of the puzzle of looking at how your child's doing. It's not the end-all of how your child is doing at all."

About 400 students took the MAP test at Mill Creek in the spring. Forty-two students were categorized into the black subgroup, which didn't reach the proficiency threshold in math. Eight of these students scored proficient, and 34 did not. The Hispanic subgroup also failed to meet the target. That did not count against the school, because the subgroup did not contain enough students to meet No Child Left Behind requirements.

After Mill Creek failed to meet the math proficiency requirement in 2007, administrators created a plan. Gipson said the school implemented pull-out tutoring, in which individual students who needed to boost their skills were tutored outside of the classroom. Gipson said she noticed improvement in the classrooms, but students still fell short of the goal.

The school has a new plan for this year. The plan involves focus groups for fourth- and fifth-grade students with different skill levels. At the beginning of the semester, students were given a pre-assessment test to determine where they stand in math. Students with similar scores were divided into groups ranging from below average to advanced. Students meet in these groups for 30 minutes a day in addition to time spent in classrooms.

Janette Henry, a fifth-grade teacher at Mill Creek, teaches an advanced-level group. She teaches higher-level thinking, number problems and puzzles. The extra time encourages students to think outside the box, Henry said. Because the students are on the same level, she's able to build on what they already know. In the regular math classes, she said, all the students are on different levels, so it's harder to do that. Henry said she thinks having students of the same level grouped together will make it easier to target problem areas and fix them.

"That's the whole reason we did it," Henry said. "Most struggling students will get the help they need to get out of those levels."

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