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Thunder Basin pursues better grade on Wyoming assessment

Thunder Basin High School Principal Terry Quinn addresses the Campbell County school board at its Dec. 13 meeting. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — In the next few weeks, Thunder Basin High School students will take Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress modular practice tests.

Results from those tests will hint at the progress the school has made toward boosting its performance in the eyes of the state before students take the real statewide standardized tests this spring, Principal Terry Quinn said Jan. 3. The scores will also help students grasp the test’s vocabulary and degree of difficulty, he said.

In April 2022, the school’s overall WY-TOPP scores slipped across most categories. That data contributed to how Thunder Basin was among the 22% of Wyoming’s traditional schools that are “not meeting expectations,” according to Wyoming’s 2021-2022 assessment.

Wyoming Accountability in Education Act, or WAEA, produced the assessment, which includes the following indicators:

  • Achievement, which is measured with the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress, or WY-TOPP
  • Growth, a comparison of how students did on WY-TOPP or ACT compared to how they did on prior
    statewide assessments
  • Equity, or the progress of students who scored the lowest on prior statewide assessments
  • English Learner Progress, or how well students learning the English language improve on an assessment of English.
  • Extended Graduation Rate, or the last year’s graduation rate and the five-, six-, and seven-year
    graduates
  • Post-Secondary Readiness, or the percentage of students that demonstrate readiness for college
    or career
  • Grade Nine Credits, or the percent of last year’s freshmen that earned one fourth the course credits
    needed to graduate

Quinn gave an overview of the school’s successes and failures in a report to the Campbell County school board on Dec. 13.

Yet, Quinn, who noted he formerly coached debate, told County 17 in September that the WAEA’s rating oversimplifies the work of Thunder Basin High School students and staff.

He said the school’s ratings on Growth, Equity and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, improved from the 2018-2019 school year, when the state said the school was “partially meeting expectations,” to the 2021-2022 school year. Wyoming didn’t calculate schools’ performance ratings for the school years in between because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school rose in Growth from 43% to 48% in the WAEA and from 40.5% to 47.8% in the ESSA. It rose from 39% to 48% in Equity. But the school needed at least a 49% to reach WAEA’s “Meeting Targets” level.  If about 10 students had done 1 mark better, the school would have met those levels, Quinn said.

“Usually, the devil is in the details,” Quinn said. “In this one, the diva is.”

WY-TOPP

Quinn told the board in December that he didn’t have a good excuse or explanation for decreases in scores across all WY-TOPP scores, apart from ninth-grade math.

(Campbell County School District)

It’s also essential to determine how much of the test results reflected students’ willpower versus their actual skill, Quinn said. He said he doesn’t believe that the results of the April 20 WY-TOPP reflect the students’ skills and talents, and the school needs to more strongly encourage students to do their best on the assessments, which they don’t receive grades on. Quinn said he asked some of the students why they performed more poorly on the exam than he anticipated they would. Some students said they didn’t try their best, he said.

He said the school has some additional hands at the wheel this year to aid in boosting the scores.

For example, professional development expert Jan Hoegh, who’s worked for a few years with Campbell County School District elementary schools, is now working with the high school. She’s starting with English, and then she will work with science, Quinn said. Math will be last since it’s seen success, comparatively, he said. Quinn said one of the ways Hoegh is helping is by encouraging English teachers to work together more closely.

They’re also making some adjustments to teaching.

For example, English teachers are now emphasizing instruction in forms of English writing and reading that are more common on the WY-TOPP, like speeches and short stories, Quinn told County 17.

The school board also approved Thunder Basin High School’s request for an English interventionist and a math interventionist, who are working with students who are particularly struggling in these areas.

“We have all the things in place. We’re hopeful. We’re not going to be content if we just move one, obviously,” he told County 17. “But there’s a stark difference, even if you’re colorblind, between orange and green.”

The school community has many challenges to overcome, including encouraging students to graduate and retaining education support professionals, or ESPs, Quinn said. His report showed that while certified staff held steady at 83 from 2020-2021 to 2021-2022 and rose to 86 this year, the school had 53 ESPs in 2020-2020 and 50 in 2021-2022. This year, it has 43.

ACT scores

ACT scores have also slipped.

Graduation rates

Thunder Basin’s graduation rate has decreased annually since the 2018-2019 school year.

Some students have left school without graduating after they learned they could start jobs, Quinn said. For example, one 16-year-old student told him that she was leaving high school before graduation so she could take a piping industry job in another state, he said. Another student told him that he was going to take a job in construction instead of taking seven classes a day without pay, he said. One student said that even though he didn’t know what he anticipated he would be doing a decade later, he believed it was time to quit school to start working, he said.

“We can do our best to try and keep them in school, but for some of those kids, money drives tomorrow. It doesn’t drive their future,” Quinn told the board. “And that’s what we struggle with. However, we’re doing the best we can to keep them there.”

One way the school is addressing the high school drop-out rate is by trying to get them back on track early, he told County 17. The school allows students to retake Algebra I and English I if they failed the classes, which they take as freshmen, and taking a closer look at the specific challenges those students are facing so they can be more successful in English II and Geometry.

Quinn said he wants students to feel welcome and “at home” at school. He said that when students struggle, they start missing school because they feel uncomfortable. Students may feel “called out” when teachers are trying to help them by giving them more individualized attention, he said.

To address that, school staff identifies students who are at higher risk of dropping out, based on academic performance and behavior, and building volunteers attempt to contact each student at least weekly to check in with them, encourage them and find out what they need, he said.

“I think by making kids feel welcome coming into school by making sure you [say] ‘Hey, how’s it going? How’s your mom doing? Good to see you here,'” he said. “If we have kids who are not coming to school, we’ll go out and ring the doorbell, knock on the door. And like I say, if you’re in your SpongeBob pajamas, you better get ready because you’re coming to school. Because we’re coming out to get you.”

He said that while some people argue that students who are failing classes shouldn’t be allowed to take electives that they enjoy, he believes that it’s the elective classes, like welding, that encourage students to at least attend school.

Shooting for success

Thunder Basin this year has the following goals, Quinn’s report said:

  • For English/language art, math and science, improve student academic performance in growth from a norm of 47.8 to 49.8 as reported on the Wyoming ESSA report
  • Staff will continue to build effective relationships with all students.
  • TBHS students will meet or exceed the Wyoming state average in each content area of the WY-TOPP and the Wyoming state ACT composite score.
  • Students will grow by at least 2% points on the Wyoming ESSA report.
  • TBHS will increase its graduation rate to a minimum of 90%

“Let’s see what we can do,” he said.

Resident Bob Jordan said during the December meeting’s public comment session that Quinn isn’t simply a principal, he’s a leader.

Each Campbell County School District school’s principal is making a presentation to the board regarding the Wyoming assessment. Thunder Basin and 4-J are the county’s sole schools to receive a “not meeting expectations” grade from the state. County 17 will also publish a story about 4-J’s successes and failures.

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