Brunswick Junior High School students test well, face budget cuts

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BRUNSWICK — Whether in math or reading, Brunswick’s older students do better than their younger siblings on the New England Common Assessment Program test.

Recently released results show Brunswick Junior High School students performed better than the state average in every category, while third- and fourth-graders were at or below average.

The test, which is administered by the Maine Department of Education as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, tests the math and reading abilities of third- through eighth-grade students and the writing skills of fifth- and eighth-graders. Because students take the test in October, it is considered a measure of how much they learned the previous academic year.

Maine’s statewide target is for 75 percent of reading test-takers to fall into the top two categories, “proficient” or “proficient with distinction,” and for 70 percent to achieve those levels in math.

Brunswick met that goal for reading, with 75.1 percent of students meeting or exceeding the state standards, but did not in math, at 67.3 percent.

Still, Brunswick students overall outperformed their peers by an average of 3.6 percentage points in reading and 4 percentage points in math.

Overall, students didn’t test much better, or worse, than they did last year. Comparing test scores from the same children in 2010 reveals that average math scores grew by less than 2 percent and reading decreased by nearly the same amount.

But after breaking out the results by age group, school administrators noted that Brunswick’s youngest test-takers, the third- and fourth-graders, appear to be struggling more with the test than junior high school students, who performed two or more percentage points better than state averages in nearly every category.

Those trends were also apparent among low-income and special education students.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Greg Bartlett noted that the scores reflect an individual student’s test-taking ability on a single day, and performance could be affected by many factors. He said the NECAP scores should not be interpreted as the decisive answer to how much the students, as a group, are learning.

But the School Department is still reacting to the trends identified on the NECAP test, Bartlett said. He told the School Board on Wednesday that kindergarten through second-grade teachers need to put a greater emphasis on test-taking skills and adopt higher expectations for math and reading comprehension.

“We’re not saying throw out the nurturing and the developmental philosophy,” Bartlett said, “(But) we need to challenge them more academically.”

Walter Wallace, principal of Brunswick Junior High School, credited the school’s strong scores to increased interaction between teachers and students.

Wallace, who became principal three years ago, has reorganized the school’s advising system so that teachers are responsible for fewer students. Instead of having 20 or more advisees, now all staff members – not just teachers – meet daily with groups of 10 students.

Wallace also relies more on data to track student performance, including grades and test scores. If a student is struggling, he said he holds a “data meeting” with that child’s teachers, adviser, guidance councilor and others to make a support plan. He said it helps prevent students from falling through the cracks and provides “a more well-rounded picture” of how they’re really doing.

But Wallace also is concerned that the junior high school’s gains could easily be reversed by cuts in the budget for staff and programming.

“It doesn’t seem like if you take a lot away, you get the same results,” he said. “More staff isn’t always better, but it helps.”

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski has said that in order to close this year’s approximately $3 million budget gap, he will be forced to make cutbacks at the junior high and high schools, which were largely spared the past few years.

When that happens, Wallace said he’ll likely look towards parent volunteers, student tutors from Bowdoin College and other community involvement to help fill the gaps.

Perzanoski shared Wallace’s concern about shaking up the junior high school too much when its students are performing well.

“We’re going to take all the precautions to ensure those (student) supports are there,” he said.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

Jackson Cyr, left, Alyssa Demanche, Raphael Foye and Lydia Ginty work in Nina Bosso’s sixth-grade language arts class this week at Brunswick Junior High School, where reading test scores for sixth-graders have improved six points over three years to 753, seven points higher than the statewide average.

Eighth-grade students Jason Higginbotham, left, and Will Bessey work alongside sixth-grader Kyle Hanson, right, during a combined study hall and language arts class at Brunswick Junior High School. The older students are there to assist the younger ones if they need help with their work.