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Sidney students ace state accountability exams


Nebraska state standardized testing results from last school year are in, and Sidney fared better than the rest of the state.

"In all areas we are above the state average," said Sheri Ehler, west elementary principal and director of curriculum and assessment at Sidney schools. "We're very excited about that. That's something, of course that you strive for."

The Nebraska State Accountability or NeSA tests measure proficiency in state standards annually.

In science, an average of 83 percent of Sidney students scored proficient or above while only 70 percent of Nebraska students overall recorded the same achievement. While 68 percent of the rest of the state was proficient or above in writing, 74 percent of Sidney students made the grade. Sidney students only fared 3 percent better than the state average in reading with an average of 80 percent, compared 77 percent for other schools in the state. Sixty-nine percent of Nebraska students were proficient in math while 77 percent of Sidney students achieved the mark.

"All in all, we're very pleased," Ehler said. "It's kind of exciting for us."

Ehler thinks that Sidney's high scores can be attributed to both Sidney's teachers and students.

"The great thing about Sidney is our teachers are very committed to teaching to their curriculum and our curriculum is aligned with Nebraska standards, of course, so our kids do have the opportunity to learn everything that all kids across the state are asked to learn," Ehler said. "Our teachers are very committed to that, but our students are too. Our students take it very seriously when we have assessments. They also take learning seriously all the time. They want to do well."

Overall, the percentage of Nebraska students statewide who were proficient in reading, math and science increased last school year, while writing scores improved for only students in eighth and eleventh grades.

Sidney 8th graders fared significantly better than rest of the state in the science section of the test. While only 19 percent of 8th grade students statewide exceeded expectations in science last school year, 45 percent of Sidney 8th graders did the same.

Sidney will make district and school wide goals to continue to improve these scores, Ehler said.

"We know that the state averages will increase, so we want our averages to increase too," Ehler said.

Not every grade takes every test each year. In NeSA testing, 3rd through 8th graders are tested in math and reading as well as those in 11th grade. Writing tests are administered to grades four, eight and 11 while 5th, 8th and 11th graders are tested in science.

The tests are now administered on the computer. Sidney students take short practice tests to prepare for NeSA, so they aren't using assessment time to figure out how the program works.

"We feel like we've covered both angles," Ehler said. "We feel like we've given the kids opportunity to learn the content."

Before the transition to computers, the schools would receive large boxes of tests and then send them back to the state after the tests were administered. Although schools now receive their scores sooner, the state has to spend more on technology.

"I think it's a give and take," Ehler said.

Sidney schools teach to the state standards but don't have access to the tests before they're given. Teachers try to develop activities and lessons that involve the concepts contained in the tests.

Since the school receives new incoming students every year, Ehler is pleased that they keep improving yearly and pick up where the last grade level left off.

"The NeSA testing kind of helps us bring closure to a year," Ehler said. "And to also see how all the efforts combined have paid off."

The goal of all standardized tests, is to find weak areas, be it subjects, schools or states and improve them, Ehler added.

"Nebraska is a strong educational state," Ehler said.

The school doesn't receive extra benefits or money for doing well on the exams. They are just a way to assess how the school is doing academically.

"There's not really a payoff other than you always want to be on the positive side of that," Ehler said.

Ehler thinks that Nebraska has mostly stamped out concerns about teaching to the test, or just preparing students for assessments without really teaching them anything valuable.

"What we're teaching every day is certainly aligned with Nebraska standards," Ehler said. "So that's what we do to prepare kids."

She does understand why some have concerns about teaching just to cover concepts for the exams.

"I think if you give up hours and hours of time in what even the learners would think was test prep, and not genuine learning activities, I think that is certainly of some concern if that is your only approach," Ehler said. "That is not our only approach."

She did add that it would be unfair to students not to prepare them for the format of the test. Ehler believes that all subject areas on the state tests are equally important.

"As far as students' future success and future success for all of our kids, they certainly need to be able to use their potential in all those areas," Ehler said. "We all feel real strongly that their reading level contributes to all subject areas. So we certainly want to continue to grow in that area. It will help them with anything they're trying to do in math or science or writing."

She thinks the tests are an accurate measure of what the students are learning if the district has worked to align its curriculum with the state standards.

"There are times that there are things that are very specific to Nebraska standards such as vocabulary words," Ehler said. "So if districts have not done that, it will be less accurate."

Ehler is pleased with Sidney's results and thinks that holding educators to a certain standard is a positive thing.

"We want to be accountable," Ehler said. "We want to be accountable for what our students are learning and we are excited about the challenge of continuing to do well."


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