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Reading By the Numbers: Small-School s States Can be Misleading

Ohanian Comment: Here's a close-up look wat what the numbers mean in a small school.

Principals of small schools love when their students score well in statewide tests, but they warn that their small class sizes can make the stats good or bad somewhat misleading.

Ronald Rideout, principal of Proctor Elementary School, noted that while 82 percent of his second-graders met or exceeded the standards of the state Developmental Reading Assessment, the remaining 18 percent seemed larger than it really was.

"One of the things that you have to be careful at a small school like mine is that percentages can be deceiving," Rideout said. "When you have 22 kids taking the test, one kid is almost a 5 percent swing. Only four students did not meet or exceed the standard."

Joseph Bowen, principal of the West Rutland School, agreed. He said he was somewhat concerned that his school's achievement of all students at or above the standard might create inflated expectations.

At West Rutland 62 percent of the second graders taking the test last May scored at the honors level and the remaining 38 percent achieved the standard.

"Small numbers don't guarantee the same percentage success next year," he said.

Bowen recalled that when he started at the school he was confronted by a relatively high percentage of students scoring poorly on a standardized test.

"So I immediately started looking for the group of students that didn't achieve and it turns out that it was just one," he said. "A lot of times, percentage change is just a virtue of the size of the class."

A similar statistical glitch threatened to mar the performance of the Rutland Town Elementary School's second-graders. While 56 percent scored at the honors level on the state test and 36 percent met the standard, 6 percent fell slightly short and 3 percent showed "little evidence of achievement," according to state results.

"It is one student," principal Patricia Beaumont said of that 3 percent at the lowest level. "I know that one student and understand why that student is where (he or she) is, and we're working with the student."

Though their scores are more subject to wild statistical fluctuations, the three principals agreed that their small numbers made it somewhat easier to teach the students in the district.

"We have a small number of students, and we have them work with reading specialists, classroom teachers and support staff," Beaumont said. "We try individual instruction as much as possible, or in small numbers in reading groups or in spelling groups or in writing groups.

"What ends up happening is you do get students becoming better readers," she said.

However, because fluctuating enrollments can have a much larger effect on smaller schools, Rideout said it can sometime lead to a larger classroom than the school would like.

"We had a small class (of second-graders) and that was one single teacher teaching them all in one class," Rideout said. "Very often we're able to have classes more in the 15- to 16-kid range."

He added that the teacher had difficulty with all 22 second-graders in one classroom, but said it would have been impossible from a budget standpoint to dedicate two teachers to the small number of students.

"She pushed herself really hard to meet the needs of the kids. I know she worked hard," Rideout said. "I just keep coming back to the numbers game. I only had four kids in that group (not achieving), and I know those kids, every one. I could give you, and the teacher could give you, very good reasons they're struggling. But we were just not able to break them into two sections."

Bowen said that the West Rutland School faced a similar challenge with 21 second-graders last year, but had adapted by splitting the students into combined first- and second-grade classes.

"Year by year, you may have 40 and the next year maybe 22, and that's one thing that helps level the numbers," Bowen said. "Multi-age classes have advantages but they also have some challenges. I don't think it's a better system, but it seems to have worked here for a number of years."

Ultimately, however, Bowen said that achieving high reading levels is really more a matter of persistence and hard work than of any particular technique.

"It's just a whole lot of work to be done, teachers trying different techniques for different students, having after school programs the kids get involved in and summer programs," he said. "We continue on past the school day and we continue on past the school year and I think that makes the difference for a great number of schools."

Contact Brendan McKenna at brendan.mckenna@rutlandherald.com.

— Brendan McKenna
Rutland Herald
2004-09-22
http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040922/NEWS/409220338/1002


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