By Michael D. Clark and Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Local fourth- and sixth-graders registered big gains in their math proficiency scores this spring, mirroring a trend seen throughout Ohio.
School officials were ecstatic with the results, saying they are the fruit of revamped math programs, more teacher training and special classes for lagging students.
The scores, though preliminary, showed that 66 percent of fourth-graders statewide are proficient in math - up from 58 percent in 2003 - while the pass rate for sixth-graders jumped an impressive 13 percentage points to 65 percent.
The tests given in March covered writing, reading, math, science and citizenship. Scores generally held steady or rose slightly statewide in most test areas, with the biggest gains in math and, to a smaller degree, fourth-grade science.
Many Greater Cincinnati school systems reflected the statewide improvement in math, though state education officials emphasize the scores are still being verified. But in the past, the state's preliminary data has been an overall good indicator of official scores, which are used to determine each district's academic rating.
Throughout Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties, 22 school districts recorded double-digit gains in math scores from 2003, with three posting gains of 20 percentage points or more. For sixth-graders, the increases were even more dramatic: 29 districts saw double-digit increases, 12 of those above 20 percentage points.
Cincinnati Public Schools, the third largest district in the state, saw sixth-grade math scores improve almost 17 percentage points over last year, while fourth-graders increased their pass rate by 10 points.
Forty-three percent of CPS' sixth-graders passed the math section of the test compared to only 26.9 percent a year ago. In the fourth grade, 38 percent of students passed the math section compared to 28 percent in spring 2003.
"We're very pleased with the results," said Christine Wolff, CPS assistant communications manager. "We launched a very focused improvement plan and it seems to be working."
That plan, begun last fall, has three components:
A focus on standards, making sure what was taught in the classroom matched Ohio's academic standards.
Frequent monitoring. The district tests students quarterly to catch weak areas sooner.
Intervention. Students who are weak in reading or math are asked to attend newly established Extended Learning Centers after school that are staffed by certified teachers.
Using a computer-based program, students focus on their weak areas. Teachers provide other assistance on an individual basis.
"Instead of finding out on the proficiency tests where the weak areas are, we're finding out much sooner and are able to get students the help they need," Wolff said.
Wayne Schools in Warren County showed one of the most dramatic increases, with its sixth-graders jumping from a 53 percent passing rate last year to 82 percent in 2004. The district's fourth-graders also improved from 74 percent passing to 85 percent.
Tom Isaacs, superintendent for the 1,350-student system in Waynesville, said the 29 percentage point increase was the culmination of three years of refocusing the elementary math program to critical thinking rather than rote memorization.
Isaacs said workshops for elementary math teachers in recent years also helped raise scores.
Another district showing marked increases was Hamilton schools in Butler County, where the number of sixth-graders passing the math test jumped 18 percentage points. This year 68 percent of sixth-graders passed, compared to 50 percent a year ago.
At the fourth grade, 70 percent passed the math section, compared to 54 percent in 2003.
School officials also attributed the gain to increased teacher training as well as free summer school, an eight-week after-school program offered before the March testing and hiring specialists for each subject area of the test.
"We placed a strong emphasis on all areas of the test," said Joni Copas, director of communications for the Hamilton Schools. "We have a specialist in each of the content areas that go into the classroom to help teachers."
Milford schools' fourth-graders showed a jump from 69 percent passing in 2003 to 81 percent this year, while sixth-graders improved from 63 percent to 76 percent for the same period.
Milford spokeswoman Valerie Miller attributed the improvement to "a before- and after-school program for math and reading where we identified students needing help in those areas.
"Grant money paid for the program and even provided transportation for students who needed it. We had more than 700 elementary students participate," said Miller.
In Butler County the Lakota Schools - the largest suburban district in Greater Cincinnati, with more than 16,000 students, and the eighth largest enrollment in Ohio - the pass rate on most of the tests was fairly stable. There was a modest gain in fourth-grade math, and a 9 percentage-point increase among sixth-graders. Janet Gorman, Lakota's director of elementary curriculum, cautioned against comparisons from previous years because students tested are different, as are the test questions, which can change from year to year although the same material is tested.
In St. Bernard-Elmwood Place City Schools, math scores went up 28 percentage points in the sixth grade - one of the biggest gains in Hamilton County - and 16 percentage points in the fourth grade.
"We implemented a new math program that was piloted last year by a select few and fully implemented this year with all of our teachers," said Stephanie Kessling, principal of Elmwood Place Elementary.
"The programs are more inquiry-based," which means children are discovering different ways to get to the same answer," Kessling said.
"We're not necessarily teaching the algorithms anymore. It's a very hands-on approach."
Children work by themselves or in teams to solve problems.
Other preliminary statewide trends on the test saw a closing of the racial gap between white and African-American students. Overall the percentage of black fourth- and sixth-graders passing each subject improved.
Black fourth-graders improved in math to 39 percent passing, up from 30 percent in 2003. In sixth grade, 37 percent of blacks passed, up from 23 percent the year before.
Sue Kiesewetter contributed.
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