DARDANELLE – In a superintendent’s office built sometime in the 1930s, school administrators are explaining how Dardanelle High beats — in biology, almost doubles — the state average on high school end-of-course exams.
It’s doing it despite the fact that 72 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch prices and 38 percent are English language learners. Many of the students’ parents are immigrants who work at a Tyson plant, the town’s only major employer.
Here’s what Dardanelle students did last year. In algebra, 97 percent scored proficient or advanced, compared to a state average of 77 percent. Ninety-eight percent scored proficient or advanced in geometry, compared to 72 percent statewide. In literacy, Dardanelle is outscoring the state 83-70 percent. And it’s not even close in biology, where the district’s 80 percent proficient and advanced rate ranks third in Arkansas and nearly doubles the state’s 44 percent.
According to Dardanelle High Principal Marcia Lawrence, "There’s no silver bullet" that explains the test scores. It’s not because the school is using revolutionary education techniques. Dardanelle High is not a charter school, and it hasn’t given all of its students computers, though it is moving in that direction. She and Superintendent John Thompson say the school’s success can be traced more to high expectations, good teaching and a commitment to excellence.
"We have a very, very rigorous curriculum," Lawrence says. "We have an absolute mandate for time on task. We teach from bell to bell every single day. We don’t play any games. We just don’t have a whole bunch of fun, but we’re committed to the academic part of it."
Starting with the early grades, teachers help students who have fallen behind not fall out. They employ a method known as differentiated instruction, where students are taught individually and broken into groups based on their understanding of a particular concept and the way they learn. Then they are given the attention they need so they can keep up with their peers.
Meanwhile, the school’s best teachers teach remedial classes. Students who don’t perform in their first semester algebra course retake that entire semester in the spring and then take the second semester in the summer. When that happens, Lawrence says, "We’ve got a good teacher in front of those kids looking for a different way to teach what they didn’t get the first time."
Educators at Dardanelle studied what the state frameworks required for high school end-of-course exams and then tailored the curricula so students started being prepared from the early grades – what Thompson calls "weed(ing) the garden." The biology teachers underwent extra preparation to align their lessons with the frameworks. Teachers don’t know what questions will be on the test, but they do know what students are expected to know.
When I ask if that’s teaching to the test, Lawrence doesn’t flinch. "It is teaching to the test," she says firmly. "We believe the test is a good test, and we believe those are the essential things that a kid in 10th grade biology ought to know. So we’re going to teach that."
The state frameworks are being replaced by the Common Core, a set of standards in English and math shared across 45 states and the District of Columbia. Once students across state lines start taking the same tests in those subjects, we’ll have a better understanding how well Dardanelle is really achieving compared to the rest of the country.
However, we do know this: Dardanelle’s composite ACT average of 22 last year beat not only the state average of 20.2 but also the national average of 20.9.
That’s coming from a lot of kids who start school coming from low-income families and immigrant parents. There may be no silver bullet, but Dardanelle must be aiming at the right target.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.