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Ask Dr. Crook

Dr. Crook welcomes educational questions by e-mail or FAX. She will answer questions of general interest in this section on a revolving basis, but cannot promise to answer every question.

Please include your name and e-mail, FAX, or address in case personal response should become possible. However, if you prefer not to have your name published, we will honor that request.

Educational workshops and seminars

Subject: Declining test scores

Dear Dr. Crook: I am in my second year elementary principal after serving the same school as an AP. We are a school with many high risk students who rate high in economic disadvantage and are above average in mobility. We are beginning to get steady growth. My concern is that even though our scores are pretty good, little by little they have been declining for the last three years. Is the test getting that much harder? I don't think you should use my name or school; it may be against policy.

- Name withheld by request

Without more information, I cannot tell you exactly what is happening, but maybe I can give you some things to consider. Your problem is probably not that the test is harder. The test developers go to great pains to keep the test levels stable from year to year, and the percent of items needed to pass has largely stabilized at the elementary level. (Note that I'm referring to the items required for an individual to pass, not the percent of the school that should meet that requirement for accountability.) Consider whether you could have lost focus and consistency (very important when your students lives are not otherwise very stable). In the effort to do still better, it's easy to keep adding programs and changing policy. This can overload teachers and students, and confused people stand still. Do you have many new teachers and tutors? Even if they are excellent, if they are using different processes, rubrics, tools, etc., student success is being undermined, perhaps seriously. With a mobile population, you must be careful not to assume they know everything being taught at your school, and know it in the same context. Have fatigue, boredom, or familiarity taken away enthusiasm and clouded the goals of both or either teachers and students? Have your lost energy? This is a place to start. Get back to me with your thoughts and we'll take the next step.

Subject: Test change to TAKS impacting progress?

Dear Dr. Crook: I am an administrator in a district where a high percentage of our students are at risk and our scores on tests like TEAMS and TAAS were initially quite low. Several years ago we embarked on an intensive program of data analysis-driven instruction and with hard work reached the recognized level. Unfortunately, over the past few years, we continue to work hard, but not only are we not progressing, we seem to be sliding back. Is this just because the test changed to TAKS?

- Please don't print my name

Of course, no one can make judgments about a particular district or campus without studying it specifically, but let's try a few general comments. TAKS is a more demanding test, and more subject areas are covered at some grades; it is, however, drawn from the TEKS, the same curriculum guidelines we had in the last years of TAAS. In questioning student achievement, we always have to examine what is being taught and how it is being taught. Here are a few of the other things everyone should consider regularly:

  • Did we take the first steps toward restructuring, see some improvement, and assume we knew and had done it all?
  • Have we forgotten that we start over again each year?
  • Have we lost focus? In the attempt to adopt good practices and programs, are we doing too much random training and implementation (perhaps burning out teachers in the process)?
  • Have we gotten too efficient? Are we giving teachers and administrators so much prepared data and so many reports that they are not themselves getting close knowledge of their students?
  • Has the composition of faculty and staff changed significantly since important training was done?

These are just a few of the questions to explore, but perhaps they will help you get started.

Subject: End-of-year assessment for 2nd graders?

Dear Dr. Crook: I am so glad to find out about your new website. I do have a question that I am currently researching: What is the current research/practice on giving TAKS-like end of the year tests to students in grade 2? We are looking at giving such an assessment (with age-appropriate accommodations) over a particular subject (perhaps math and maybe reading)?

- Nelda Fortune
Asst. Superintendent
Early ISD

Dear Nelda,
I don't know of any solid research on 2nd grade end-of-year testing in TAKS-like form. I do know many districts who test either at the end of the year or during the first weeks of third grade and like the results this gives them. Without such information, third grade is working "blind." This is a problem for both efficiency and morale. Whether you test at the end of 2nd or the beginning of 3rd is more a matter of you mobility rate than anything else. If your population is relatively stable, testing at the end of the year lets you use the results to ponder and plan over the summer. If you have lots of turnover, waiting until the beginning of third would let you cut down on make-up tests and time spent grading tests for children who will not be with you in third grade. As you mentioned elsewhere, spacing the test into shorter segments is a good idea with younger children. Another source of materials, if you pick and choose among the items, is any 3rd grade TAAS test given before 1999.

Subject: Difficulty teaching fractions

Dear Dr. Crook: I tutor math for very high risk middle grade students. I love the kids and my job and I try hard to give them the best. I'm just the manipulative queen and do lots of "hands on." No matter what I do , they still have trouble with fractions. We'll have a great lesson and they'll work the problems in the book. Then tomorrow, if one thing changes, they lose it all. Any suggestions?

- Name withheld by request

Fractions cause problems for lots of students. If they don't grasp the general concept when fractions are introduced, they may really struggle to catch up.

It's great that you're using manipulatives and other hands-on techniques - keep it up. Many students, though, have trouble transitioning from the manipulative, to a flat (two-dimensional) drawing, to mathematical symbols. After you use a manipulative to solve a problem, have students draw the object and procedure, and then work the same problem in mathematical notation. Then talk it through out loud. It takes a little longer, but the multiple form and sense representations help lots of kids. Another strategy you could try is aimed at improving students' understanding of what fractions mean or "say." For a few weeks, have students extend the "line" when they have a fraction and write in words explaining what the fraction represents. For example:

© 2006 Dr. Shirley Crook