At Belmont Elementary -- where proficiency on state reading tests has risen steadily over the past three years -- Principal Polly Bowhay ends her announcements the same way each morning.
“The harder you work,” she says over the intercom.
“The better you get,” chime in the students, their voices reverberating in the halls.
The ritual helped produce one of the good stories buried in the numbers of the latest round of statewide test scores in reading, math and science.
Overall, the percent of Lincoln Public Schools students proficient on state reading tests rose 2 percentage points to 84 percent. Average math and science scores remained steady at 76 percent and 70 percent, respectively.
At the state level, reading scores also increased 2 percentage points, to 82 percent; math scores went up 1 to 73 percent; and science scores remained at 72 percent.
The state administers reading and math tests to Nebraska students in grades 3-8 and 11 to gauge how well they master content in state standards. Students in grades 5, 8 and 11 take the science tests and those in 4, 8 and 11 take the writing test. Writing test results haven’t been released yet.
At LPS, some reading scores -- particularly in grades 3-5 -- have shown steady improvement over the past three years, hitting record highs in the latest results. Since 2014, third-graders’ scores rose from 82 to 89 percent; fourth-graders from 83-88 percent and fifth-graders from 81-87 percent. Those percentages are better than the statewide averages in all three grades.
Both Belmont and Rousseau elementary schools' scores have increased in each grade all three years. Culler Middle School’s sixth-grade scores have also increased for three consecutive years, to 75 percent proficient.
Clinton Elementary saw a fairly dramatic one-year increase in reading, jumping from 66 percent proficient to 81 percent.
“We’re really proud of a lot of our scores this year,” said Jane Stavem, LPS associate superintendent of instruction. “We’re seeing some of the highest (state test) proficiency scores we’ve ever had, especially in reading and math, in the history of our school district."
The increases are happening because of a efforts around what happens in the classroom: helping teachers hone their skills, encouraging students to work hard and putting interventions in place to help those who are struggling.
"I want people to understand that it's not magic that we got the highest (scores) we’ve ever gotten," Stavem said. "It's doing the right things around instruction over a long period of time and working on continual refinement."
District officials have focused particularly on helping teachers learn how to better engage kids in schoolwork and plan lessons so they have clear goals of what they want to teach each day, she said.
Stavem also thinks a new K-6 reading curriculum called Wonders, which blends digital and traditional content, is making a difference. The district began using it three years ago.
While the digital options make it easier for teachers to give quick feedback and allow students to read digital or traditional texts, what’s really made the difference is the curriculum's emphasis on “close reading,” said Lisa Oltman, the district's reading curriculum specialist. Close reading encourages students to focus on what the author was trying to say and asks students to support their answers based on the text.
At Belmont, the whole school is focused on student achievement, Bowhay said. That means secretaries and entrance monitors, not just teachers, will take time to read with students.
Teachers are very clear with students about what they should be learning each day: It's posted in each class and teachers refer to it several times during the lesson, she said.
“Students are very clear on what they’re supposed to be learning,” Bowhay said. “So they take ownership in that.”
Teachers talk a lot about effort, she said, and they set high expectations and work hard to make sure students are getting extra help where they need it.
“It takes a lot of planning,” said Bowhay.
In a school where 79 percent of students qualify for the free- and reduced-price lunch program -- the main gauge of poverty -- many students have turmoil in their lives, and Belmont administrators work hard to make the school a calm place to learn, Bowhay said. That means making sure behavioral expectations are clear and followed by all teachers.
“The bottom line really is our staff and our students have laser-sharp academic focus. We just can’t waste a minute of time here,” she said. “We set the bar high and they rise to the occasion. We set our bar high for teachers, too.
In math, a new elementary school curriculum that focuses on having students explain their answers and find multiple solutions -- a way to begin to think about math concepts rather than simply learning multiplication tables -- has helped pushed proficiency levels above 80 percent for the past two years.
Seventh-grade scores dipped significantly: from 78 percent proficient to 73 percent, which LPS interim curriculum specialist Josh Males said may be a one-year anomaly.
Although in high school just 61 percent of students were proficient in math, that percentage jumped to nearly 81 percent for students enrolled in advanced algebra and to 86 percent for students who earned at least a C.
District officials are looking for ways to help raise the scores of students who aren’t taking the advanced math classes, Stavem said.
In science, because students are only tested in grades 5, 8 and 11, LPS officials are focusing on reviewing material from other years, said curriculum specialist James Blake.
LPS still lags behind state averages, except in eighth grade, where this year's 69 percent proficiency exceeded the state average by one point, which Blake attributed to changes in the curriculum.
In elementary school, maintaining proficiency at 72 percent was good, given that six elementary schools were involved in a pilot for a new curriculum, he said.