MN schools hoping for head start

Published 11:36 am Monday, August 27, 2012

Carson Pankow, 9, reads a book during a summer literacy assessment at Deerwood Elementary School in Eagan, Minn. -- MPR Photo/Tim Post

By Tim Post

Minnesota Public Radio News

EAGAN, Minn. — As Minnesota students settle into their new classrooms in the coming weeks, teachers will begin to assess their reading and writing skills.

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It’s something teachers have done during those first few weeks of school for years. But a few Minnesota districts are assessing their elementary students before school begins, in hopes of getting a head start on the year.

That’s why Carson Pankow, 9, recently spent an hour of his summer vacation at school, of all places.

The fourth-grader briefed literacy teacher Lynn McGrane on his summer activities as they walked through the relatively empty halls of Deerwood Elementary in Eagan.

What might have sounded like chit-chat between student and teacher, was actually part of a 45-minute academic assessment by McGrane.

She listened to Pankow’s language skills, and watched for behavior that might tip her off to his learning style. The main part of the assessment focused on literacy. McGrane took notes as Pankow read a book about polar bears.

This type of assessment isn’t new for Minnesota teachers, but its timing is.

For the first time, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district will assess its nearly 13,000 kindergarten through 5th grade students before school starts.

The change is helpful for teachers, McGrane said, since the one-on-one meetings usually take place at the back of a bustling classroom during the first few weeks of school.

“Uninterrupted time with an individual student helps the teacher, because the teacher isn’t trying to manage the rest of the class while they’re doing those assessments,” McGrane said.

Another advantage McGrane sees is that she will have data on each of her students’ literacy skills on the first day of class. In the past, that would have been information McGrane wouldn’t have until a month or more into the school year.

“We get a one-month jump-start on our teaching,” McGrane said.

But that jump-start means families must find time during summer vacation to bring students to school. And teachers need to work a few days during August.

“The calendar changes,” said Tami Stalch-Chultz, principal of Westview School in Apple Valley. “Teachers are going to work two days in August, which are regular teacher work days, but they are ending earlier in June.”

That change to the school calendar could be the reason more districts don’t take this approach. Only three in the state are doing student assessments on a wide scale in the summer.

But the information teachers gain from summer assessments makes up for a slightly shorter school year, said Beth Swenson, a literacy teacher and teacher trainer in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district.

Swenson used to work in the Brainerd Public Schools district, where she encouraged school officials to start a similar effort.

The result was that teachers knew on the first day of class which students needed extra help with reading and writing.

Swenson said that by the time of the first parent-teacher conference six weeks later, students were already showing improvement.

“You actually have that before school data, and the six-week data, and you can show some significant gains,” she said.

Swenson said when the effort in Brainerd began, 30 percent of elementary students in the district were reading at a level that required special education intervention. Within six years, that had dropped to 7 percent.

Summertime assessments are about more than just pinpointing literacy skills, she said.

They give students a chance to meet their teachers before school starts, in something more than a passing introduction at a busy open house.

“You learn so much about them as individuals,” Swenson said. “What they like or dislike. What they’re curious about, what they want to read about.”

That kind of information, Swenson said, will also help teachers better instruct their students.