Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in an ongoing series focused on the Chehalis School District and the success of its Student Achievement Initiative, which was launched in 2013. The full series can be found at https://chronline.com/schools/.
Since the Student Achievement Initiative (SAI) was launched in 2013, the Chehalis School District has made significant progress in improving outcomes for its students. Through expanded student support and changes in school teaching methods, W.F. West High School has improved its graduation rate and increased the percentage of graduates earning a higher education credential.
But while the district has managed to improve student outcomes in areas such as graduation rates and higher educational attainment, it has struggled to improve student math scores.
“Over and over, we keep seeing that math remains the single biggest academic hurdle not only in the school district but beyond,” said J. Vander Stoep, a member of the Chehalis School Board. “Chehalis right now isn’t doing significantly better than average with math.”
Many other district officials agree with Vander Stoep. Math has been a uniquely difficult issue for the district — and districts across the country.
“Math has been a problem,” said Chris Simpson, the principal at Chehalis Middle School, expressing a sentiment shared by several Chehalis teachers and administrators who spoke with The Chronicle.
“We have data that shows we’re making the right steps but then there’s other data that shows we’re not making those improvements we want. Math is a primary example of that,” said Trisha Smith, the assistant superintendent for the Chehalis School District.
While the district has managed to match statewide results for reading in recent years, it has consistently lagged behind state math standards, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chehalis even slightly outperformed on reading. According to OSPI, 60.3% of students met state reading standards during the 2018-2019 school year, compared to statewide results of 59.4%..
But during the same period, the district trailed statewide results in math, with the gap increasing after the pandemic started. Data from OSPI shows the Chehalis School District experienced a sharper drop in math test scores than the state as a whole when comparing school years immediately before and after the pandemic began. Even sharper declines were seen among school districts with higher scores.
“The reality is that when the kids took the Smarter Balanced assessment (Washington state’s official standardized test) there were some drops (after COVID), but what we realized is that our drop wasn’t as bad as some other districts across the state,” said W.F. West STEM Coordinator Lynn Panther. “Districts that typically score higher than we do had more significant drops.”
During the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years, the district lagged behind the rest of the state by 0.2 percentage points in the percent of students meeting state standards.
At the same time, the percentage of Chehalis students meeting state math standards stood at 49.3% and 48.7%, compared to statewide results of 49.5% and 48.9%, respectively.
That gap widened significantly in the 2020-2021 school year, when only 24.5% of Chehalis students met state math standards, compared to a statewide result of 30.4%. The following year, those numbers were 33.6% and 37.7%. Standardized tests were not administered during the 2019-2020 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Chehalis, which in recent years has placed a high emphasis on improving student engagement in the classroom, the COVID-19 pandemic proved difficult and served as a valuable lesson in the difficulties of virtual learning and the importance of teacher-student relationships.
“(The COVID-19 pandemic has) really shown us the importance of daily interactions with our students and developing relationships,” said Rick Goble, who was recently named director of student achievement at the Chehalis School District.
According to Goble, even with great teachers it was difficult for students to overcome the difficulties of the pandemic.
“I’m so glad we have such quality teachers,” Goble said. “Our teachers are working hard, they have gone above and beyond all through this pandemic. The drop in test scores during the pandemic is no reflection on our teachers.”
And the district’s challenges in math are not unique.
“We’re very focused on how Chehalis has had some successes with math. But COVID took a big shot out of student success (in) math, not just here but around the country,” Vander Stoep said.
Even before the pandemic, schools across the state and country have struggled with math.
“It’s not just here in Chehalis but across the nation,” said Smith.
Panther echoed Trisha Smith’s comments.
“This needs to be a team effort, math achievement has been an issue nationwide for a while,” said Panther, who also serves as a math coach for middle and high school students.
Since Washington state began administering its current standardized student assessment exam, the percent of students meeting state math standards has never reached 50%.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for 2022, only 35% of fourth graders and 26% of eighth graders nationwide are proficient in math. The same data showed Washington’s students performing the same or only marginally better than their national peers, with 35% of fourth graders and 28% of eighth graders meeting math proficiency standards. Globally, American students struggle with math compared to their peers. According to the 2018 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, a standardized test given to students throughout the world to compare academic achievement internationally, the U.S. ranked 38 out of 79 countries for students' performance in math, scoring below the international average and behind countries such as China, Germany and Russia.
However, while Chehalis struggles to bring math performance up to standards, the district consistently outperforms its peers in the state. During the 2021-2022 school year, Chehalis ranked at the 82nd percentile in math for high school students in Washington.
And across Lewis and Thurston counties, Chehalis ranked fourth in the percent of high school students meeting state math standards, behind only the Olympia (46.9%), Napavine (45.6%) and Toledo (40.8%) school districts. Statewide, the Chehalis School District is ranked number one for math in districts with over 1,000 students and a majority low-income student population.
“Compared to other places we’re not exactly doing that bad,” Goble said.
It’s unclear why Chehalis has struggled to improve its students’ math performance. Some district officials told The Chronicle the issue may be because of a perception among students that math is difficult. According to W.F. West math teacher Caitlin Lieseke, students often develop a mindset that “math is hard.”
“It’s hard to pinpoint when that happens,” Lieske said.
To address the issue of student performance in math, the district has sought to change its approach to teaching the subject by helping students have a more optimistic view of math.
“(We’re) trying to show all kids can be math kids,” Lieseke said.
Efforts to change the methods used to teach math are implemented throughout the district.
“We are prioritizing math instruction. We’ve been actively involved in our math improvement planning,” Smith said. “(We want to) try and change our messaging around math.”
Smith and Rachel Dorsey, the principal at Orin Smith Elementary, spoke about trying to create what they both called a “growth mindset” around math.
The district has worked with teachers to create a positive atmosphere for young students in math, with teachers encouraged to “tell them they can.”
Learn more about “The Math Problem” in the upcoming edition of Achieving Success, an ongoing series by 2016 W.F. West High School Graduate Matthew Zylstra on the Chehalis School District’s work to improve student achievement.