WEST GREENWICH—As Exeter-West Greenwich High School Principal Brian Butler walked through the halls of his school last fall during the week of testing for the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), he noticed something was a little bit different.
His students, who had one year earlier struggled to reach proficiency levels in reading, math and writing, were taking right up to the final minute to finish the tests and, from that observation alone, Butler could tell they were taking it more seriously than they had in prior years.
And all you need to do is take one look at the results to see he was right.
EWG High School students put forth some of the biggest gains in Rhode Island in terms of percentage of students at a proficient (Level 3) or proficient with distinction (Level 4) level, with 80 percent of students at the school proving proficient or better in reading, 67 percent of students proving proficient or better in math and 69 percent of students proving proficient or better in writing.
Those numbers represent a nine percent increase in reading, a 39 percent increase in math and a 33 percent increase in writing, easily among the state’s biggest leaps from the 2009-2010 school year to the 2010-2011 school year.“I was beside myself with pride,” Butler said inside his office Monday afternoon.
“I knew we were going to do well because of the amount of time that the students had taken in preparing for the test. Years past, it’s been a cursory attempt, they didn’t really see the net value of it but I, along with the assistant principals and the teachers, assured them that this was a very high-stakes test in terms of graduation proficiency as well as being one of the graduation requirements and I knew that they had taken it much more seriously.”
So what sparked the change?
According to EWG Superintendent Dr. Thomas Geismar, the test score increases were the result of a perfect storm of initiatives.
“Well people are always asking that question,” Geismar said. “Like ‘What magic wand did you waive over this to get such an improvement?’ and, really, education is a process and it isn’t like a water faucet you turn on and off or a light switch you turn on and off.”
For Geismar, this year’s NECAP scores showed improvement because of a new math program at the elementary levels, which is in its fourth year, is “beginning to show a payoff.”
In addition, he says, the district is paying a lot of attention to child outreach at the preschool age group, is piloting two new reading programs, has provided new math books for seventh and eighth grade students and has made sure “that our curriculum and what we are teaching our students is aligned to the state standards.”
“You put all those things together and add to the mix that the students, particularly at the high school, were more serious about the test this year, probably more serious than they’ve been in years past because it was part of their graduation requirements, I think all those things together moved the scores up,” Geismar said. “So I can’t say it’s just one thing or another but I think it’s a combination of what we’ve been doing over the years.”
EWG math chair Karen Purtill agrees.
“We knew that the students were capable of doing this well, we just had to wait for them to put in their best effort and they did,” Purtill said Tuesday. “They worked hard, took the entire time working on this test. It was a three-hour test spread over three different days which I think helped also but for all the hard work that we’ve been doing as a department, we’re just thrilled with the scores.”
Purtill also feels that her department’s focus on struggling students paid off. In addition to requiring students coming up from the eighth grade that were “deficient in their basic skills” to take a foundations of math course, the EWG High School math department made sure to teach at a slower pace for students who “take a little longer to understand the concepts”.
Add that to a renewed focus on the importance of the test and it’s easy to see why the numbers are so bright and positive for not only the school but the district as a whole.
All told, 80 percent of students in the Exeter School District were at Level 3 or 4 proficiency in reading, compared to just 71 percent statewide. In math, the difference is even bigger. While 76 percent of students in Exeter scored proficient or better in math, just 55 percent managed the same statewide. And in reading? Statewide, 57 percent of students scored proficient or better. In Exeter, that number stood at 71 percent.
Going forward, Butler says, it’s important to remember what it took to get these test scores so high and to find a way to keep “business as usual.”
“As I’ve always said, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” Butler said. “The instruction has always been there and now the kids are putting the effort in.”
For Geismar, that means convincing taxpayers in both Exeter and West Greenwich of the importance of proper funding for education in the district.
“I think it’s very important to keep our momentum going,” he said. “We want to maintain manageable class size loads both for our students’ benefit, to help our teachers to be successful. It’s very critical that our new reading program is funded properly, both the printed material that we need as well as the technology that goes along with it and the professional development that goes along with it, these are important things so that we can continue to advance student achievement in our district.”
Politics aside, though, it’s a great week to be associated with the Exeter-West Greenwich School District.
“I was ecstatic first for the students because I think it shows how well they’re progressing and I was also very happy for our faculty because our teachers work hard to help our students,” Geismar said. “We’ve been disappointed the last couple of years with our scores and we believed our kids were learning better and capable of doing better and this group of students really applied themselves very diligently and they did a great job and I’m proud of them.”