Tuesday, April 28, 2020

E-Learning + Applied Mathematics = Fun!

With schools closed and students learning from home via the internet, mathematics for middle school students at Midwestern Christian Academy has adapted and taken on a more practical, applied form that it usually has in the classroom.  Students in Sajid Chohan's sixth grade general math, seventh grade Pre-Algebra and Eighth grade Algebra 1 classes now have some very practical ways to apply the concepts they are learning in class.  From measuring the height of their house using shadows that fall on the ground to calculating exactly how much it costs to make a meal for your family, Mr. Chohan's on-line math lessons teach the required curriculum benchmarks at the same time they illustrate the practical use of their knowledge while they are doing something at home, like cooking.

Using a video demonstration of the practical use of the math skills being taught in class is not a new thing for students in Mr. Chohan's classes at MCA.  It's a technique he's used for a long time to capture students' interest in math, illustrate exactly how they can use it and help them develop usable skills that will help them do well in high school and do exactly what you want math skills to do--save money.  In addition to that, the byproduct of a class session, in many cases, is edible.  So home learning means that doing a math lesson can be combined with a simple household task like making dinner.

After students complete the video project, they participate in an on-line live video class session where the specific concepts unique to their grade level math course are taught.  That includes sixth grade general math, seventh grade Pre-Algebra and eighth grade Algebra 1.  Of course, if parents want to participate, they can skip the class session and just follow the instructions on the video lesson.

If you'd like to see a sample of Mr. Chohan's cooking, or video math lessons, click the link here and pick your favorite.


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Assessing Student Achievement Without a Standardized Test

One of the casualties of the transition from classroom to distance learning has been the loss of ability to administer an annual assessment or "achievement test" to our students.  The ISBE has waived its requirement for all schools, public or private, to administer a test that measures the average yearly academic progress of its students.  Illinois has a state-based skills test that the public schools are required to give, however, the only students in private schools who take it are those who receive the tax-credit scholarship funds.  Since we are a candidate for full accreditation, the annual test we give is the one recommended by the accreditation commission.  For the past seven years, that has been the Terra Nova Achievement Test.  This year, ACSI recommended the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.   

The Iowa Test gets its name because it originated in Iowa, but like the Terra Nova and the Stanford tests, it assesses the level at which students have mastered basic skills in reading comprehension, reading mechanics and phonics, grammar, composition, math computation, math concepts and the ability to listen and draw conclusions in science and social studies.  Our curriculum focuses heavily on students acquiring these skills, especially in the early grades, so we need a test that assesses their ability to practically apply them.  The ITBS is one of the best in this regard.

How MCA Students Performed Last Year
Last year, we administered the Terra Nova test during the first week in May.  The results came back just prior to the last day of school.  While most parents focus on how their own child performed, as a school we take a look at the collective data from all of the students who took the test.  There are three specific measurements that tell us what we want to know about what our students learned and help us measure the effectiveness of the curriculum objectives we use and where we need to "tweak" curriculum and instruction to improve. 

Percentile Rank
The percentile rank compares how an individual student or a group of students did compared to all of the other students on their grade level who took the test during the same quarter. For example, an individual student who had a percentile rank of 70 in math did better than 70% of all students on the same test in the same subject.  The collective average of the class compares how our students in a particular grade did compared to all other students in that grade.  Our third-grade class had a collective percentile rank of 74 in mathematics, which means that they did better than 74 percent of all other third-graders who took the test.  Across the board, 90% of MCA's students placed between the 65th and 75th percentile in language arts and math, and above the 70th percentile in science and social studies.  Ninety-five percent of MCA students placed in the top half of all students who took the test, compared to 50% of all test-takers. 

Grade Level Equivalence
Grade level equivalence measures the progress of students on a specific grade level when it comes to meeting the expected benchmarks in core subjects that students in that grade are expected to meet.  For example, a first grade class taking the test in May would score a grade level equivalent of 1.9 if they had succeeded in meeting all of the expected benchmarks as a class. 

MCA's average grade level equivalence exceeded the expected score by an average of 0.4, meaning that most students in every grade at MCA achieved all of the expected benchmarks for their grade level along with almost a complete quarter of the benchmarks for the next grade level.  We expect that to be the case, especially in math and reading, because our curriculum objectives include those higher benchmarks.  Who were the highest achievers at MCA last year?  Our current seventh grade class. 

Benchmark Achievement
The percentage of students who meet or exceed the expected benchmarks in core subjects is an important indicator of the strength of the school's curriculum and instruction.  On this achievement test based on national standards, 89% of students at MCA met or exceeded the grade level benchmarks in mathematics, and 91% met or exceeded the benchmarks in English/language arts/reading.  We were above 95% in science and social studies.  I have information available if you would like to see how surrounding K-8 schools in our part of the city did, including the selective enrollment schools, honor academies and charter schools. 

How will we measure our progress this year?  
We were looking forward to giving the Iowa assessment this year and seeing where our students scored.  Standardized tests aren't the "product" of a school, but they do provide a lot of information that informs improved instruction and confirms an excellent academic program.  Last year's results confirmed the decision we made to change the curriculum materials we were using for mathematics in grades 1-5 and pointed to the need we have to make sure our eighth grade class completes Algebra 1 during their last year in middle school.  It also confirmed that our use of the Abeka Phonics program, beginning with the reading skills kids in Pre-K are learning, is working when it comes to giving students a solid foundation in reading.  Other changes will come with time. 

Measuring the detailed level of progress without using a standardized test is difficult.  We will not be able to get information that compares where we stand compared to students in other schools, though it is likely that the progress we made this year is similar to what we achieved last year.  But there are some things we can do to make sure we are on track with where we need to be and that our students will be ready for the next grade level when school opens in the fall.

Measure Benchmarks Using Current Assignments
Students are doing a lot of independent work during this stay at home period.  Teachers can get a general idea, from the quality of the work that is turned in, about how close to meeting the benchmark in a particular subject each student will be by the end of the year.  Parents who are assisting in this process can observe and see how much assistance their child needs in a particular subject on a specific assignment.  That will tell you.

It is not easy to administer assessments via E-learning.  Conditions require a student being able to complete an assessment with an equal amount of assistance as other students in the classroom and there is no way to guarantee equal help when students are at home in different places.  But you can still get a general idea of what students have learned by giving a test and seeing how they do by direct observation. 

All teachers have a list of specific benchmarks in specific subject areas for their grade level.  They can determine what still needs to be taught based on where they have finished in the past. 

Based on Previous Performance
We have a very good idea of what is still left to be accomplished based on our previous school year experiences.  In the lower grades, E-learning is live and students are getting basic live instruction focusing on reading skills and mathematics.  We believe that we have enough time left in the school year, even doing on-line instruction, to get our students within the achievement we would consider acceptable for a successful school year. 

The academic achievement of our students is confirmation of the strong, academic standards built into the curriculum at MCA.  We have the advantage of an excellent teaching staff, a commitment to following practices and pedagogy derived from Biblical models and principles, engaged and committed parents and a curriculum designed to provide students with practical, useful skills they will need later on.  You are in the right place. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions

If you have questions during this uncertain time, please feel free to ask.  Remember when you were in school and there were a couple of students in class who you could count on to ask the questions you wanted but were afraid to ask?  We get a lot of questions, mostly about the same thing.

How effective is "e-learning" or online learning?  Are my children going to learn as much as they would if they were going to school?  
That's an excellent question.  Their success depends on a lot of factors, including how much encouragement and support they get from their parents.  The learning environment in the classroom is managed in such a way as to facilitate focus and attention and provide support for learning key objectives.  If the home learning environment is directed in the same way, it will go a long way toward students accomplishing objectives.

Some schools and school districts are sounding as if their attitude toward this crisis and the closure of their schools is lost time and they are writing the rest of the year off and, as one superintendent put it, "hoping for the best when we come back in the fall."  While it wasn't an easy task to shift over to E-instruction for our teachers and planning and preparation for teaching takes more time and energy than it does in a classroom routine, we are encouraging our students to "finish strong."  We believe we can get as much out of this period of time as is necessary for our students to finish the school year where their parents expected them to be when school started last fall.

Each student has their own unique learning style.  While some will find more difficulty focusing and learning new objectives,  we believe that they will adjust enough over time for this to be a successful experience for them.  Since we will not be giving an assessment this spring, students will have more time to work on mastery of objectives which prepare them for the next grade level.

What about grades? 
Teachers need to be able to assess and determine how well students are learning the objectives they are teaching.  They will be giving grades for assignments.  However, students will not fail a course or have their grade reduced resulting from any work they have done this quarter.  Students will have an opportunity to improve their current average in a subject, but the grades they receive won't penalize them or reduce their grade.

We do expect students to participate and complete assignments.  Students who do not turn in assignments during this period of time will receive whatever grade they had earned at the end of the third nine weeks.  If that grade was failing, then that is the grade they will receive for the course.

We will issue report cards at the end of the year.

Will there be some kind of discount or tuition remission made since students are not actually in attendance at school? 
The circumstances related to school attendance are beyond our control.  Our teachers put in a lot of extra effort, time and preparation to make this transition from the classroom to E-learning.  They are putting a lot of effort into lesson planning and adapting their curriculum and instruction to a new platform to continue to provide excellent academics while remaining committed to discipleship.  You are the beneficiaries of all of this hard work.  If students are putting in the expected effort being asked of them, depending on the grade level, they are investing between 3 and 5 hours per day in this distance learning effort.  That's about what they would be investing in instructional time if they were in school.  The expertise in guiding students through the objectives and providing instruction as to how to accomplish them is still being provided by the school, along with the scope and sequence and curriculum materials. 

About 25% of the cost of your child's education at MCA is subsidized by outside sources.  During a time of crisis such as this, those funds can easily be depleted.  Tuition is the main means by which we fund our ministry.  The value of what you are receiving, even by this alternate means, remains at least equal with the amount of tuition dollars we collect.  We would not be able to provide this level of distance learning to you if we discounted or reduced the tuition.

What about Eighth grade and the trip, banquet and graduation ceremony?  
There were a lot of tears shed by teachers when they found out that they would not be able to meet their students in class anymore this year, no where more intense than in the middle school area.  We are going to do our best to make sure our eighth grade students get their banquet, trip and graduation ceremony when gatherings are allowed again.  It may be August, it may be October, but we want our eighth grade to have this experience.

As far as Kindergarten goes, we are planning to put together a "virtual graduation ceremony" to celebrate their advance to first grade.  It should be fun.

The virus will still be around when school starts in the fall.  What steps will you take as a school to make sure everyone is safe?  
Even prior to the dismissal on March 16, our building was being cleaned and disinfected regularly.  I'm not sure what returning to school will look like, or if we will still be E-learning when school starts in the fall but our building and classrooms will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected every day.

It appears that face masks and protective gloves will be part of what students are required to have at school.  We will ask parents to monitor their child's temperature each day and we will very likely take temperature from every student every morning before they could inside the building.  By then, there may be other guidelines put in place that students and staff would have to comply with.

We've experienced a loss of employment.  We hope it's temporary but we are uncertain about what our financial situation will look like.  We don't want to pull our child out of a school and put them in an unfamiliar environment when we really want them in a Christian school.  What happens in that case?  
We ask anyone who is experiencing something like this to get in touch with us so that we can discuss your situation.  No one asked for this, and we are a Christian ministry, which means that we follow Christ's teachings.  It is our desire for your child to continue in school here because we know the benefits of an MCA education.  We will consider each individual situation and prayerfully seek a resolution that will honor God and be consistent with the school's distinctively Christian mission and purpose.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

We Will "Finish Strong"

Whatever you do, work heartily as for the Lord and not for men knowing that from the Lord you will recceive the inheritance as your reward.  You are serving the Lord Christ.  Colossians 3:23-24 ESV

We learned today that the schools in Illinois will not re-open for the remainder of the school year.  That was certainly sad news for us.  There are so many things that we enjoy and which help wrap up a school year for us that we will miss this year.  We are especially sad for our eighth grade class.  We are going to give you your graduation ceremony, banquet and trip.  It may be August, but we're going to do this for you.

We were hoping to be able to return to the classroom.  Since that isn't going to be the case, we'll take a deep breath, ask God to direct our plans and out paths and move forward.  There are some things we want you to know and some questions we can answer.

We are committed to "finishing strong" and doing the best we can do with the resources we have been given.  We intent to accomplish as much as we possibly can with our students between now and the end of the school year.  We have a set of expected outcomes in each subject area for students in each grade level.  Even though we have moved to E-learning, we are not in a "holding pattern" or "just doing review".  We are continuing to provide instruction which will help students master the objectives that remain for the school year.  So what we are doing isn't just to keep kids busy for part of the day.

Whether or not we are successful in doing this depends on whether the students are participating in the E-learning process.  We are providing instructional support, materials, a lesson plan and a means of evaluating student progress.  If parents are committed to making sure that their children are logging in, participating in the lessons and will provide the assistance they need at home to complete their independent practice assignments, we will accomplish most of our expected outcomes.

This isn't something we planned for and it would be easy to just give up, write off the rest of the school year and hope to pick up where we left off the next time we come back to school.  But our school isn't just an educational institution, it is a ministry to which our teachers and staff made a commitment to serve their students and families as unto the Lord.  We've been thrown a curve ball, so to speak.  Within the limitations of what is happening now, there are opportunities that we might not even have known about otherwise.  We are committed to looking for the opportunities and making the best out of the situation we have been given because by serving you we are serving the Lord. We are your partners in the education of your children.  Pray with us, walk with us, support us and we will be successful in achieving our goals. By serving your children in this way, we are all "serving the Lord Christ."

What to expect from MCA
You may hear and see things online and in the media related to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) protocols that have been put in place during this period of school closure.  While we are an Illinois Recognized school, during this crisis, ISBE has given the private schools and individual school districts the autonomy to develop their own E-learning plans.  Since we do not operate under the same educational philosophy or protocol as the public education system, this has provided MCA with an opportunity rather than a restrictions or limitations.

There are some aspects of E-learning which are unknown when it comes to the kind of progress we can make in achieving objectives and moving students forward.  We are assessing the work our students are completing and using it to determine the kind of progress we are making.  You will see grades appear, though not as regularly as before.  Grades will be used to assess each student's progress toward mastery of the expected benchmark.  Students will not fail as a result of grades received during this nine weeks.  However, students can improve their overall average, calculated based on the first three quarters, by participating and doing well during E-learning.

Since learning that we will now be completing the school year online, we may make some adjustments to the daily schedule in which your children are involved.  We want to include all aspects of the school day if we can, so there are art projects, vocal music work, band is still continuing and there will be some P.E. activities added in now.  We realize that many of you are now working from home and your time and computer access is limited and some of you are still going in to work every day.  Our goal is not to overwhelm you by re-creating the whole seven hour school day.  But one of our objectives in providing education is the spiritual formation that we help support.  Making this experience as "normal" and familiar as possible will be a blessing and will help students deal with these changes.  Bible instruction will continue.

We are not recording attendance in a formal way.  However, you need to know that participation in E-learning is key to the success of the students.  Our school staff is committed to this.  This is a new experience for us.  One of the ways we look for opportunities during this time is to treat it as a learning experience and use it to sharpen our skills and make us better at what we do.  That's how we are looking at it.

End of the School Year
We made an adjustment to the calendar a few weeks back when we anticipated the possibility of returning to school.  Since we are not returning to the classroom, we will return to the original schedule with Thursday, June 4 being the last formal instructional day.  We are going to celebrate graduations for both Kindergarten and Eighth grade, and we will have a trip and banquet for Eighth grade.  When, well, we don't know that yet.  But we want them to have those things as memories and we want them to have time to spend together that they have missed out on having these past few weeks.  Each class will make arrangements with students and parents for a virtual celebration to hand out awards. 

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this announcement was for our teachers, who have had to come to grips over the weekend with the fact that they will not get to see their students in their classroom in person for the rest of the year.  They want to have this E-learning time with their students.  Save the hugs.  There will be a chance to do that once again.

Most of all, we need your prayers.  Our school is a ministry and it is our desire to reflect the character of distinctively Christian faith in all that we do.  We want to be a blessing to you.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

School During a Viral Pandemic: Finishing Strong!

The longest period of time I can recall being out of school for an unplanned emergency was five days.  When Hurricane Rita advanced toward the Texas coast in September of 2005, the forecast has it heading straight for Houston.  In advance preparation, and to facilitate the evacuation of people in danger along the coast, school was dismissed.  The hurricane took a turn to the north and missed us.  Students in the areas around Lake Charles, Louisiana, which took a direct hit, and in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area of Texas, which also took the full force of the storm, were out of school for about a month.  But there were areas left without electricity for at least that long, and some of the schools were damaged beyond repair.  Most of them wound up making up the days missed during the following summer.  For us, though, we went back as soon as we could and worked out our schedules to accommodate the missing time.

So here we are with a pandemic on our hands, other than a snowstorm, probably the only occurrence that could close schools here for an extended period of time.  We do have more options available to us for delivering instruction, though still not ideal.  It's been interesting to me to watch the general perspective that has been conveyed by many of the state departments of education in handling the crisis.  Most of them appear to be overwhelmed, finding ways to make sure all of their students have access to the extended, but limited educational options they offer.  Students and parents are picking up on the idea that the year is being considered a "write off."

We're fortunate, as a Christian school, to be in fellowship with others who share our concerns, issues and problems and with whom we can also share ideas, help each other out and inspire each other.  I have to credit Phillip Scott, who is the director of the Children's Tuition Fund, with the inspiration to apply the term "Finish Strong" to the remainder of our school year.  Phillip pointed out that while we are out of our classrooms, we have been given a measure of freedom when it comes to exploring new ways to deliver instruction.  Under normal circumstances, online learning experiences are limited when it comes to the percentage of instruction allowed using e-learning methods.  He also pointed out that as a private Christian school, our obligation is to our students and parents, not to our state department of education.  So that is the perspective we will take as we move forward in uncertain times.  We will do our best with what we have been given and finish strong!

Thank Your Child's Teacher for Their Effort
One of our long range plans for this school year was to "introduce" our staff to the electronic classroom and provide professional development to assist in being able to use this tool to help make the workload easier and to take steps toward increased use of technology in the classroom.  As you know, we have a limited budget for this and we spend most of our professional development funds on practical pedagogy and content and work toward upgrading teaching certification.  In January, I was able to send four staff members to a Google Education conference so that they could come back and do an in-service sometime this spring to assist the rest of our staff with the development of their "Google Classroom."

We got a crash course following the announcement on Friday that the following Monday would be the last day of school for a while.  We prepared our students for learning at home, sent home materials and worksheets and the teaching staff gathered for a couple of hours on both of those days to get a crash course in using Google Meet and Google Classroom.  Reaction to the change was varied, but everyone was committed to make this experience the best one possible for their students.  They've continued to update their skills and take steps toward keeping things moving forward as we navigate the uncertainty of this time.  They did a great job with very short notice.

Please keep in mind, each teacher is still involved in various stages of learning and getting comfortable with the way this works.  They are also attempting to assess how well it is working, what students seem to be learning and ways to improve what they are doing.  By the time this is over, they will achieve the goal that our long range plan intended to accomplish.

Limits of E-Learning and Online Instruction
The expected outcome for students at MCA each year is that they meet or exceed the specific benchmarks for their grade level.  The results achieved by the public schools that surround MCA vary from the 30-35% range up to the 50-55% range depending on the school's geographic location.  Our Biblically-based philosophy and pedagogy and focus on basic skill development in the lower grades usually results in just over 90% of our students meeting or exceeding the benchmarks based on national standards of achievement.

E-learning or online learning is different from being enrolled in online classes.  Schools that offer on-line instruction have the equipment and infrastructure in place and have submitted a specific curriculum and instructional plan.  All students are provided with the exact equipment and materials they need to participate.  What most schools are doing now is extending the instruction they would normally provide in the classroom to students using different methods of instruction.  Even in a normal situation the amount of instruction we would be allowed to provide this way would be limited.  There's not much research on the effectiveness, or the amount of instructional quality that is lost, in E-learning/online learning environments.

We're depending on the advantages we have as a private Christian school to help make up for any differences which may occur.  One of the keys to academic success in our educational philosophy is the dependence on Biblical models of instruction and education and another is the high percentage of parent involvement in their children's education.  We are depending on these things to give us a boost so that we can provide our students with what they expected to get out of this school year.

Eighth Grade Traditions Need to Be Preserved
Somehow, we need to figure out how to make sure our eighth graders get the experience they were expecting.  As far as classroom experience goes, that's not a problem. We may have to get creative when it comes to the trip and banquet. This will end and as soon as it does, we will get those events on the calendar, even if we have to wait until July or August.  And I'm praying that by the time graduation rolls around, we will be able to gather together with more than 10 people six feet apart.

How You Can Help
We have committed to do our best for our students, hoping that we can return to the classroom before the end of the school year, but getting prepared if we can't.  We believe that is what God expects of us, a school that honors and glorifies the name of Jesus.  There are some things that we need to accomplish this.

Pray for us.  We want to be in the center of God's will and be a positive, spiritual influence in the lives of our students even as we go through uncertainty and crisis. 

Re-enroll now.  If you are still working and have a steady income, re-enroll now.  You get a $100 discount off the fee until April 30.  And you can add $400 to the discount every time you encourage another family to enroll here.

Pass on the blessings you have received.  If you have been blessed with an abundance, we do have some families that need assistance with their tuition.  Worrying about their children's education shouldn't be something that comes on top of everything else.  If you can commit to give to a tuition assistance fund we would be grateful to you.

Make sure your child is involved in e-learning.  This isn't an ideal educational situation, but we are working with the resources we have.  Have your child prepared to learn each day and keep up with their participation and their work just like you would if they were coming to school each day.

Some encouragement from the Apostle Paul:

"We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus , so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies...So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer self is wasting away our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not not to the things that are seen but but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."  II Corinthians 4:7-10, 16-18 ESV