The demographics of Crete Public Schools near Lincoln make it a challenging place to teach.
More than half of Crete students come from low-income families, and it has nearly four times as many English language learners than the typical Nebraska district.
Superintendent Kyle McGowan, however, said Friday that such statistics carry little weight when it comes to parents' expectations for achievement.
“The truth of that is nobody really cares where they are on the pie chart,” McGowan said.
“Everybody's expecting their kids to be literate and do well. So that excuse does not sell.”
Nevertheless, McGowan said he's pleased that Crete students held their own on this year's state writing test, beating the state averages in eighth and 11th grades instead of succumbing to what demographics might predict.
Districts across the state received their writing test results last week, and by and large, scores moved in the right direction.
Officials in several districts said they will take a hard look at the results to shore up their weak spots.
“We look at every single student and their performance,” McGowan said. “That happens at the classroom level with the teacher, trying to figure out what took place on their performance and trying to adjust.”
Statewide, the number of eighth-graders scoring proficient on their essays rose from 64 percent to 66 percent.
Eleventh-grade proficiency was up from 62 percent to 68 percent.
“Those are acceptable improvements, and we anticipate that those will continue,” said Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed.
A computer glitch frustrated some test-takers statewide and may have affected scores for eighth and 11th grades, but it was not so severe as to invalidate the scores, Breed said.
Sixty-eight percent of fourth-graders were proficient. Comparing this year's fourth-grade scores with 2012 is impossible because the Nebraska Board of Education changed the scoring and set new cutoff scores for proficiency.
The state's upward trend in scores was helped by metro Omaha school districts.
Elkhorn Public Schools led metro districts with 91 percent of its eighth- and 11th-graders proficient.
High school juniors in Gretna made a large leap in proficiency, up 11 percentage points.
“If we did anything, we probably had them do more writing on the computer, but I don't think instructionally we made vast changes,” Superintendent Kevin Riley said.
Teachers were more familiar this year with the state scoring system, which was new in 2012, he said.
The state combined the six traits of writing into four: organization; ideas and content; word choice and voice; and sentence fluency and conventions.
Omaha Public Schools saw mixed results, but ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, sees some reason for optimism.
Writing proficiency in OPS high schools showed gains similar to other metro high schools, up from 45 percent to 49 percent.
Six of seven high schools were up: Benson, Burke, Central, North, Northwest and South. Only Bryan was down.
Proficiency dipped slightly at middle schools overall. Kehrberg said the dip was not statistically significant. Five of the 11 middle schools saw gains: Beveridge, Bryan, Monroe, Norris and Marrs, the last jumping 19 points.
Kehrberg said the district will continue to focus on writing at the middle school level, including training for teachers and practice for students.
On the fourth-grade test, district officials felt they fared well considering OPS's demographics.
Three out of five OPS fourth-graders were proficient. Although below the state average, Kehrberg said, it reflects well on a district with nearly three in four students in poverty.
Statewide, about two in five students come from low-income families.
“We're really looking at the same baseline data that's not that different from the state, yet our student population is dramatically different from the state,” Kehrberg said.
The district took several steps last year to improve scores, Kehrberg said.
» Last year, every new teacher in the district, even the physical education teachers, got a half-day of writing training.
» Fourth-graders took a practice test last fall to help teachers and students identify areas needing improvement.
» District officials examined its schools that teach writing well and circulated those successful techniques districtwide.
Kehrberg said efforts are underway to address weak spots.
» The district will spend federal money to focus on instructional leadership at Bryan High, where proficiency among 11th-graders dropped from 40 percent to 36 percent.
» At Druid Hill Elementary, where 15 percent of fourth-graders were proficient, teachers will have the support of a literacy facilitator, who will specifically focus on writing and train teachers.
» Steps will be taken at two middle schools, Monroe and Nathan Hale, where nearly three of four students did not meet state writing standards.
Monroe saw a 5-point gain, however, and has an opportunity for increases in the future, Kehrberg said.
“We have talked with the principal in regards to what he needs to make that happen,” she said.
Nathan Hale saw no upward movement.
“I've already emailed the new principal, who was just assigned, Darin Williams, and that's on my agenda to sit down and talk with him about,” she said.
Since 2002, the Nebraska statewide writing assessment has been administered in grades four, eight and 11. Fourth-graders write narrative essays. In eighth, the essays are descriptive, and in 11th persuasive.
The test was taken in January and February by more than 64,000 students.
The glitch affected what some eighth- and 11th-graders saw on their screens while taking the online test. For example, some words broke incorrectly from line to line, and some centering was off, Breed said. The fourth-grade test was not affected because it was not online.
It was like working with “a word-processing program somewhat gone mad,” Breed said.
It caused anxiety for students and teachers but apparently didn't affect the content of kids' essays, said Betty VanDeventer, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Education.
The responsible party was a subcontractor, VanDeventer said. State officials have been assured that the problem won't be repeated.
The department found no apparent effect on student test results. However, because state officials cannot guarantee that there was no effect, the state is recommending that the scores not be used for state and federal accountability. The writing scores have been secondary to the reading and math scores anyway, and the writing scores can be left out without undermining the accountability system, officials said.
McGowan said the glitch affected Crete kids.
“If you've ever sat at a computer and kept having things mess up your data, it doesn't take long, at least for me, to think 'OK, I'm done with this, I'm going to move on,' ” he said.
Contact the writer:
|Douglas County West||**||—|
|Douglas County West||76||86|
|Douglas County West||63||90|
|* Preliminary results|
|** Masked for small group size|
|— Scoring change and reset of passing level prevents comparing|
Visit the Nebraska Department of Education's website to see how your school did.