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Decatur schools closing test gaps
Officials seeking parity in scores

This is the final of three articles on Decatur City Schools' achievement gaps.

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

Decatur school officials acknowledge that achievement gaps exist between white and minority students.

Superintendent Sam Houston attributed most of the gaps to poverty. But he said these are the important questions: Are gaps closing? What is the system doing to close gaps?

One issue for the school system has been scores on the Stanford Achievement Test —10th Edition. This test isn't a part of accountability and some of the information tested isn't covered on the Alabama Course of Study.

However, many prospective residents use it to compare Decatur schools with schools elsewhere when considering relocating.

Houston instructed school principals to make a renewed effort to improve SAT-10 scores.

Jeanne Payne, director of curriculum and professional development, said teachers have information on SAT-10 objectives and information tested. They asked the teachers to make sure they cover these objectives and information, before the test next spring.

"Our students are smart, and we want them to be able to show it on the test," Payne said.

Houston said the school system's test scores are improving on the Alabama Reading and Math Test. The state uses this test for accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Decatur has made significant gains in minority scores on a proficiency index. The Alabama Department of Education established the index to measure improvement on the reading and math test.

For example, with zero as the goal, Decatur's black students turned a minus 1.94 in 2005-06 into a 9.17 in 2006-07 on grades three through five reading. Hispanic students went from a minus 6.64 to a 9.09.

"The exciting part is to watch the progress as we close these gaps," Houston said.

Decatur was the only school system in the state to have six schools receive recognition for their progress on test scores.

Houston said Decatur's schools implemented progress monitoring. Using an idea once specific to special education, they develop individual education plans for each student. They develop pacing guides to make sure every student is learning the required curriculum.

The teachers hold grade-level meetings once a week and discuss individual students' progress. They also meet regularly with teachers from other grades.

Intervention

Payne said the teachers monitor each grade during the nine-week grading period. They implement intervention measures when needed. If a child is struggling with his reading, he will go to his regular class, but then he will get a second period of reading with a teacher.

"If he's really struggling, he might get a third dose," Payne said.

This monitoring is particularly effective when the students go from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school. These transitions are particularly difficult, and that's reflected in the test scores.

Houston said the schools are trying to improve communications between grades to aid in the transitions between fifth and sixth grades, and eighth and ninth grades.

Payne said the teachers attend professional development sessions during the summer and after school to learn different ways to teach. The school system uses programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative, Mobile Math Initiative and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.

Practical math

Payne said math teachers will use calendars and money so students can relate to practical uses of math.

"We work hard at teaching for understanding, not just memorization," Payne said.

Kindergarten, first and second grades are using the "Open Court" reading program to make sure students understand the basic components of reading.

If a middle school student falls too far behind, the school system has a Ninth Grade Academy at Horizon High for students to catch up before entering high school.

Students who fall behind in high school can attend Horizon High and participate in a credit recovery program. Last year 68 students graduated because of Horizon and that number could rise to 80 this year, Houston said.

Expanding programs

While the school system is working to close gaps, school officials would like to do more, if the funds were available.

Houston said he would like to expand the pre-kindergarten program to more schools and the Family Assistance Through Community Ties program.

Although the school system added more Extended Day Programs, Houston would like to bring back the EXCEL (Expanding Children's Eagerness to Learn) program. Extended Day charges a fee for participation, while EXCEL was a free, federally funded program before the money ended.

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