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Moving the needle forward

Nov 13, 2013 - By Chris Peck

The good news: Wyoming kids overall are doing better than the national average in school.

The not so good news: four of the seven worst-performing school districts in Wyoming are in Fremont County.

These factoids can be gleaned from recently released data on school achievement in the state and in Fremont County.

The first result, namely that Wyoming public schools continue to outperform the national average in both math and reading fourth-graders and eighth-graders is cause for celebration and congratulations to the state's educators.

And these numbers don't lie.

They come from the just-released National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which is widely accepted as the nation's report card on school achievement.

Student scores on standardized tests are compiled in all 50 states every two years and then compared with results from the same tests from the previous two-year cycle. Apples to apples. A good, clean measurement.

Using the NAEP results form 2013 and comparing them to 2011, Wyoming looks pretty good.

Overall, the nation's kids improved their combined overall fourth grade and eighth reading and math scores by about 5.4 percent over the last two years.

Wyoming kids improved their math/reading scores by 6.2 percent

over those same two years -- more improvement than the national average.

But let's not break a rib patting ourselves on the back.

In truth, the progress is modest.

The percentage of Wyoming eighth-graders who are truly proficient in reading and math stands at only 38 percent today,

basically the same as two years ago. True, the kids who are good readers and good in math are up from a decade or more ago, when only 31 percent were tested as proficient readers and 19 percent where proficient in math.

But the fact remains, 62 percent of eighth-graders in the state are reading or understanding math at what NAEP calls a basic level, or below. More troubling still, the kids at the very bottom are making no progress at all. Kids who test out at the bottom 25 percent of all students appear to be stuck far, far behind the top students. And in Wyoming, this bottom 25 percent really hasn't made any real progress for a decade.

And who are these kids stuck at the bottom? The statistics say that many of them are in Fremont County.

According to the School Digger Web site which tracks thousands of schools across the country in every state and looks at their NAEP test scores, three reservation schools -- Wyoming Indian, Arapahoe, and Fort Washakie -- plus Shoshoni Elementary, badly trail the rest of the state in terms of student achievement and skill.

What to make of all of this?

One clear trend is that for the kids who need an education the most, we aren't moving the needle as fast as everyone would like.

A second clear trend is the fact that when school districts set higher academic standards and then focus on building a teaching core that can meet those standards -- the test scores improve. In other words if you both aim higher and them measure progress, teachers and kids respond.

And, finally, one last trend.

The slow progress in truly moving student achievement up clearly shows this isn't easy work.

Asking kids to do more, finding teachers who will hang in there to make it happen, and building a community will to make these changes represents a tremendous challenge.

But we've to meet that challenge -- in Wyoming and across the country.

Our kids are competing with students in China, India, everywhere. Millions of these kids are doing better in math, and reading, and in building a model of critical thinking skills that to many of our kids lack.

In the end, it won't help America if we make excuses about poor-performing schools, teachers, or students.

Our kids will simply lose out, and so will our nation.

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