By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
The toughest math test the state of Ohio administered last year was given to fifth-graders.
Just 67 percent of all fifth-graders taking the test scored high enough to be rated ''proficient.'' The state requirement is 75 percent.
The fifth-grade math test has been a bear for years.
But when Erwine Middle School in the Coventry District scored only 48 percent in the 2007-08 school year, principal Tina Norris dug into the data to find out why.
Norris incorporated the answers she discovered into teaching and scheduling changes the following year that boosted Erwine's score to 73.6 percent a 25-percentage point jump missing the state requirement by one student.
Last year the school did even better, with 77 percent of Erwine's fifth-graders proficient or higher, according to results released last week.
What's Norris' secret?
The simple answer is she doubled the amount of time kids spent on math. But how the district spent that extra time also is part of the story.
It begins with those fifth-grade test scores in the 2007-08 school year.
''It was absolutely abysmal and quite embarrassing,'' Norris said.
She pored over questions from previous tests and discovered a mismatch between what the students were taught and the tests: Students are taught their multiplication tables in the third grade, but aren't rigorously tested on them until the fifth grade.
''You can pass that fourth-grade test without knowing your multiplication facts, at least based upon the released questions that I have looked at,'' she said.
But students must have those multiplication facts down cold if they're going to master the fifth-grade material. So Norris had a problem: How could she find the extra time to review rusty skills and still keep the kids on track for the fifth-grade test?
Norris found that answer at a national conference. She was representing Erwine, one of 16 middle schools in Ohio considered to be ''Schools to Watch,'' a program started by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform in 1999.
She learned at the conference that research led to one conclusion: kids needed twice the time they were getting in school for math.
The best way to accomplish that was with a scheduling technique called ''blocking,'' which gives a teacher 80 minutes to work with students instead of the typical 40-minute period each day.
''Pretty much what we found across the board is that the best middle schools across the country are blocking math doubling the amount of instruction time in math,'' Norris said.
''Basically, what I give up to get two hours of math is that students don't get a study hall,'' she said. ''I have found in my experience that study hall is a complete and total waste of time.''
Erwine's teachers used the extra time to polish multiplication skills.
As an incentive, students were rewarded for mastering the tables.
''We buy them pizza and pop and all that stuff,'' Norris said.
Reviewing multiplication pays off in more than just higher test scores.
''Next week, I'll have to teach equivalent fractions and reducing fractions,'' said fifth-grade teacher Vicki Bauer. ''If you haven't mastered your multiplications, they're sitting there forever trying to reduce a fraction.''
The teachers used interactive computer technology that allowed them to know immediately when students weren't grasping a concept and frequent tests to make sure they were on track for the state tests.
Idea catches on
Erwine's success persuaded the district to try the same techniques at Coventry Junior High, which boosted its eighth-grade score from about 69 percent the previous year to 86 percent on the latest report card.
The school was able to double the time for math thanks to federal stimulus money that enabled the district to hire Korianne VanAuken, 23, newly graduated from Bowling Green University.
VanAuken said longer classes were a challenge.
''Whenever I did my student teaching, I had 45 minutes,'' she said. ''I didn't really know what I was getting myself into.''
She said the key was to keep things interesting.
She reviews and instructs in the first half of the session and shakes things up in the second half, with activities for students to practice the skills and concepts.
''They like baseball so I'll bring in baseball cards and we'll look at different percentages, the home-run percentages,'' she said. ''They'll use those statistics and then we'll play a baseball game with it.''
Junior high principal Cynthia McDonald said VanAuken is a welcomed addition to the staff.
''One of the things I love about Korie is that she has them actively engaged all the time,'' McDonald said. ''I joke because I think she's used two full rolls of laminating paper since she's been hired. She's always cutting little cards, little pieces, little games.''
More time for math, however, means less time for something else.
''Probably the area that may suffer a little bit would be some of the electives,'' McDonald said. ''They can't take as many electives, especially if they're a band or choir student.''
Norris said she's had to make choices like that at Erwine, too.
''Not all my sixth grade is blocked and not all my seventh grade is blocked. I don't have the teachers to do it,'' Norris said. ''This year I sacrificed a little bit in my social studies and science classes, made those classes a little bit bigger, so I could block another section of math.''