Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Roger Dey
Blackfoot Valley Dispatch 

Absenteeism, poor scores affect Lincoln 7-8 accreditation


Roger Dey

Issues with absenteeism and failing grades among Lincoln's Junior High School students has taken a toll on the middle school's accreditation status this spring, placing it in an "Advice" category, while both the High School and Elementary School have met the required performance standards and maintained their "Regular" accreditation.

Under the Administrative Rules of Montana Chapter 55, which sets the standards for accreditation, there are three categories of accreditation for schools in the state: Regular, Advice and Deficiency.

Graduation rates, absenteeism and reading and math scores using the Smarter Balanced assessment are the criteria used to determine accreditation status, Lincoln School Superintendent Carla Anderson said.

Since Lincoln Junior High School is in Advice status, the school district is required by the state to submit a plan of improvement, including a "systematic procedure" and a timeline for fixing the problems, to the Superintendent of Public Instruction in the coming weeks.

Among Lincoln Junior High students, Anderson sees severe absenteeism as the major factor in the issues the school faces.

"When I've got students at 23 percent absenteeism and the state says five percent is acceptable, it gets me a little crabby,"she said.

A spreadsheet provided at the April 16 School Board meeting detailed Junior High math scores and absences and showed that among 27 seventh and eighth grade students, 20 of them had missed more than five percent of school days, while nine had missed more than ten percent.

The sheet also indicated a correlation between absenteeism and grades. Of the nine students who had missed ten percent or more of the school days, seven of them were earning failing grades in math.

Anderson said the first step to fixing the problem will involve the student handbooks. Until now, 7th and 8th graders have adhered to the guidelines laid out in the elementary school handbook. Next year they will have to adhere to the High School year book standards.

Under the elementary handbook, there isn't an impact to a student's grade based on absences. Instead, the school monitors the situation and if a student accumulates enough absences to affect their ability to learn they report it to the Lewis and Clark Sheriff's Office for enforcement under the state's truancy laws.

Under the High School handbook, students who exceed the allowable number of absences lose a percentage of their semester grade for each additional absence. Unexcused absences can also earn students in-school suspension.

"Seventh and eighth grade needs to be under the high school handbook so they have the same accountability for being absent and losing credit. I think that may help," Anderson said.

Academic proficiency in English and math, as determined by the Smarter Balanced assessment aligned to Montana Common Core Standards, is also an issue for the middle school. Of the school's nineteen 8th graders, eight are failing two or more core subjects.

Anderson said the Smarter Balanced testing itself may be one of the reasons for the scores.

"The math section ... they have to be able to write how they came up with that answer. Its higher-level thinking skills," she said, adding that some of the kids haven't had enough practice in doing that.

Additionally, she said they have a diverse set of junior high students this year with differing ability levels, as well as several newer students who have different educational backgrounds, all of which present challenges for the teaching staff.

Anderson said she hopes parents of middle schoolers will work with the school to reduce the number of absences, which in turn should help improve 7th and 8th grade scores.

"Get 'em here. We'll take it from there," she said.

Anderson said the accreditation issue also had an impact on teachers, who she said were "heartbroken" by the Advice classification.

"They took it so personally," she said. "Most of them give so much during the day, it was really heart wrenching to see how upset they got. All week they've been brainstorming about how they're gonna fix it."

Next year they plan to focus on teaching kids how to explain in writing how they came up with math answers, she said. Likewise, they will have to develop their computer skills to make it easier for them to handle the computer-based testing.

Anderson is confident the accreditation issue will only be temporary, however. "Everybody's committed to getting those numbers up," she said.

As the current class of 8th graders move into high school Anderson said the problem may resolve itself, although some of them may have to play catch up. She explained that, despite failing grades, many parents want to "socially promote" their kids, and the school can't really hold them back unless there is agreement between the parents, the school administration and the school psychologist.

That changes in high school.

"When you get to high school you're held accountable by the state," she said. "If you don't get your freshman math credit or your freshman English credit, you don't move on to sophomore year."

Furthermore, Anderson said the school's $750,000 Montana Comprehensive Literacy Project Grant will be driving some changes in how the school days are structures, which is designed to help improve student performance.

"It's gonna be a big effort, but I just am adamant this has to be fixed in one year," she said.


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