Knappa juniors need math boost

Terrence Smyth

Last year, only about 5 percent of Knappa High School’s juniors who took the state’s new Smarter Balanced assessment scored on track to be career- or college-ready in math. Fewer than 60 percent of juniors took the math assessment.

Since at least 2007, Knappa Superintendent Terrence Smyth said, he has noticed the district lagging behind the state and demographically similar schools. The biggest gap comes in high school math.

“It’s my contention that we have many bright, capable students here, so there’s something else at play,” Smyth said Monday at the school board meeting, pointing to issues with both learning and teaching.

Smyth, who was hired as superintendent of Knappa this summer, spent eight years as principal of Springwater Trail High School in Gresham, where he said a culture shift and a change of educational policies produced significant, lasting improvements in student performance.

Part of the reason he was hired was because of board interest in proficiency-based grading, which he helped implement at Springwater and which Knappa has started adopting in earnest. The term refers to instruction, assessment, grading and academic reporting based on students demonstrating they have learned the knowledge and skills expected as they progress through their education, rather than on letter grades.

Math instructor Catherine Thompson said Knappa High School students took the ACT Compass college placement test at Clatsop Community College last week. On average, she said, they placed at the Algebra 1 level, below the Algebra 2 level needed to meet college standards, meaning the students would need remedial courses if they tried to enter college.

The goal for Knappa, she said, is to eliminate the need for remediation and to get students ready for college or a career.

Since last year, the district has implemented more personalized learning for students, Thompson said. It has integrated multiple areas of math into single classes based on the natural progression of learning, and has linked the classes with the Willamette Promise, which provides dual college credits to students who pass a proficiency-based college exam.

Knappa has also started using professional learning communities, groups of teachers in similar subject areas who meet to coordinate their curricula.

“I would also like to get a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) math class next year,” Thompson said, adding there are many hands-on learners at Knappa.

Thompson said the math department at Knappa still needs more data collection on students’ progression, an additional half-time math teacher to join the district’s three full-time math staff, a math class assistant to help struggling students, longer periods for students performing below benchmarks and 24-hour access to learning technology.

With certain changes, Smyth said a growth rate of 10 percent a year should not be challenging for Knappa.

Smyth said his recipe for success at Springwater included not only proficiency-based grading, but also staff development in that system and changes in best instructional practices.

Why many students didn’t take the Smarter Balanced Math assessment last year was probably a combination of fear about not doing well, he said, a bias against testing and the fact many students meet their graduation requirements through other approved assessments. Many students use the state’s Essential Skills work samples, prompts they can complete under the observation of a teacher, to meet graduation requirements.

“Part of the recipe is setting an expectation for being smart is cool,” he said. “Highlighting achievement is important. Celebrating achievement is important. Expecting kids, and helping them expect that they are capable and can work really hard in classes and then show how smart they are, that’s certainly a part of it.”

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