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.

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“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.

Math scores

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.

Science scores

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.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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School-by-school LPS test results

Percentage of students who meet or exceed state standards.

Field 1 Field 2 Field 3 Field 4 Field 5 Field 6 Field 7
READING READING MATH MATH SCIENCE SCIENCE
2016 2015 2016 2015 2016 2015
LPS 84 82 76 76 70 70
STATE 82 80 73 72 72 72
ELEMENTARY
Adams 97 97 96 96 96 94
Arnold 90 89 89 82 67 62
Beattie 92 88 85 85 77 76
Belmont 89 88 88 86 68 66
Brownell 82 81 77 81 53 67
Calvert 84 76 73 66 62 57
Campbell 80 78 74 70 64 59
Cavett 94 93 91 92 86 90
Clinton 81 66 74 64 52 34
Eastridge 93 94 95 96 94 80
Elliott 79 79 73 68 48 47
Everett 77 66 68 63 57 55
Fredstrom 94 95 92 90 74 84
Hartley 66 66 63 59 46 38
Hill 92 91 88 91 81 92
Holmes 89 86 90 86 71 70
Humann 94 92 88 90 83 85
Huntington 74 70 73 69 57 57
Kahoa 93 93 92 92 74 87
Kloefkorn 96 96 91 94 91 94
Kooser 91 86 92 92 78 72
Lakeview 84 80 70 72 61 60
Maxey 95 92 92 93 82 84
McPhee 68 54 54 45 22 26
Meadow Lane 86 84 79 80 80 87
Morley 93 93 90 89 85 84
Norwood Park 75 77 70 67 60 73
Pershing 77 69 71 61 53 56
Prescott 78 63 67 56 48 45
Pyrtle 94 93 91 91 78 87
Randolph 89 92 81 80 72 80
Riley 81 83 75 80 65 69
Roper 85 82 79 80 71 71
Rousseau 99 96 95 95 91 90
Saratoga 87 78 71 71 54 60
Sheridan 93 97 93 96 84 98
West Lincoln 79 83 78 78 64 51
Zeman 93 91 92 89 83 91
MIDDLE SCHOOLS
Culler 73 72 52 56 43 48
Dawes 77 79 62 67 66 64
Goodrich 73 74 64 65 63 70
Irving 85 85 73 76 66 70
Lefler 84 83 71 76 66 68
Lux 95 95 91 92 86 83
Mickle 84 81 72 71 68 63
Park 71 70 59 59 47 44
Pound 91 90 84 83 76 77
Schoo 87 84 73 73 68 69
Scott 95 94 91 92 87 85
HIGH SCHOOLS
Lincoln East 84 81 77 76 85 81
Lincoln High 63 58 47 51 55 57
North Star 58 58 48 53 59 61
Northeast 60 63 44 51 62 63
Southeast 79 76 68 65 75 74
Southwest 82 80 71 70 81 78
Source: Nebraska Dept. of Education

Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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