OOSTBURG, Wis. (AP) — Kevin Bruggink knew something didn't add up.
His small-town eastern Wisconsin school district had a reputation for talented teachers and strong community support. In his 12 years in Oostburg, he'd come to feel it was deserved.
But they didn't have the test scores to show it.
For five years, scores had been stagnant — ranking in the bottom quarter of Wisconsin school districts on the ACT, which many colleges base their admissions on. Graduates were leaving Oostburg unprepared for whatever came next, whether it was college or a job.
Bruggink thought they could do better.
"We had all the pieces we needed for success," said Bruggink, who first came to Oostburg as a student teacher and worked his way up to superintendent. "So was there a way we could harness that, that we could bring all that together?"
He turned to his teachers for ideas. Together, and with the assistance of a two-year transformation program, they rethought the whole business of education at Oostburg, and they settled on some surprising conclusions:
— Teachers should have more power to figure out how to teach their own students.
— Students needed to be encouraged to be more ambitious at an earlier age — whether their plans included a four-year college, a two-year tech school or heading straight into the workforce.
— And Oostburg's schools really should teach to the test — often viewed cynically as a sign of systemic wrongheadedness — because the test had the same goals as the schools did. But not quite in the way you'd think.
Seven years later, the results are hard to argue with.
Oostburg's 2018-19 ACT scores were seventh out of nearly 400 schools — in a tier where every other school spends more per pupil and household incomes are higher than in the little village 10 miles south of Sheboygan, the Sheboygan Press reported.
And student participation in Advanced Placement courses and exams increased sixteenfold, data from the state Department of Public Instruction shows.
Bradley Carl, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, said the Oostburg school district's scores are clearly "going in a positive direction."
"There's evidence of good things going on at Oostburg," said Carl, who studies state educator effectiveness and school accountability. "We don't do enough celebrating the good things in education."
And while Oostburg administrators and teachers plan to keep shooting for more improvement — wary of the possibility that they have just had an exceptional group of students recently — other schools in Wisconsin may want to take some pointers.
Oostburg let its teachers figure out what works best for Oostburg
Many businesses and organizations are managed in the traditional top-down approach. School districts are often no different. It's not uncommon for administrative staff and school boards to make big decisions about curriculum and set student learning standards.
But over the last seven years, Oostburg has worked hard to abandon that idea, said Curt Bretall. The third- and fourth-grade science and social studies teacher said much of the improvement came from discussions among teachers at Oostburg's elementary, middle and high schools.
The idea is largely built on an educational concept called a professional learning community, in which educators meet regularly to share expertise and work together. Teachers are given time during the school day so they can meet with cutting into their personal time.
Bruggink assembled a dozen "lead teachers" from a variety of grade levels to lay groundwork for a school turnaround.
"The teachers are the experts — they know our curriculum best," he said. "So we felt their expertise in the classroom had to be the starting point."
At the beginning, the teachers and administrators involved invested a great deal of time outside regular school hours, Bruggink said. That meant meetings before, during and after school, as well as summer retreats and conferences.
The district also received assistance from the School Administrators Institute for Transformational Leadership (SAIL) program through the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators. The two-year program provides coaching to teachers and administrators at schools across the state.
To this day, a core "lead teacher" team still exists, and all Oostburg teachers are involved in monthly meetings grouped by subject area.
There, the educators themselves determine the specific skills and standards they should home in on.
"We're able to tailor what we're doing to what really matters to us," Bretall said. "The ability to take a set of skills that we all agree on, talk about them and then apply them at different grade levels has made a big difference."
From those meetings emerged some key ideas that have changed the education culture in Oostburg.
Oostburg dared, without apology, to teach to the test
In a time of high-stakes and high-pressure standardized testing, so-called "teaching to a test" is an idea that stirs controversy in education.
But at Oostburg schools, teachers brazenly teach to a test — in particular, the ACT.
That's because, Bruggink said, teachers, staff and administrators agree that the ACT is the best measure — at the very least, a solid starting place — of both college and career readiness as students approach graduation.
The national assessment covers four academic skill areas: English, mathematics, reading and science, with an optional writing section. Although many high school juniors take the ACT because it's required for admission to many colleges, the state adopted the exam as its standardized test for high schools in the 2014-15 school year.
"I think that's a flawed notion that's out there," Bruggink said of the negative connotations surrounding the idea of teaching to a test. "The question shouldn't be whether you teach to a test or not, it's whether an assessment is measuring the right things. And if it is, you should be teaching to it. It would be silly not to."
But "teaching to a test" doesn't mean administering practice tests on a regular basis. Take the experiment Bretall was working hard to prepare one afternoon in late September.
Every year — just in time for fall — Oostburg third-graders spend a morning weighing, measuring and slicing open pumpkins. They measure each bright-orange colored squash plant's circumference, count its ribs and the number of seeds inside.
Over the years, the experiment has become sort of iconic at Oostburg — something middle- and high-schoolers reflect on with a smile, Bretall said.
So where did Bretall get the idea? Incidentally, it's based on a question on the ACT Aspire, an ACT pre-test given to ninth and 10th graders. It's part of an effort districtwide to base curriculum around skills measured on the ACT, and another effort among Oostburg science teachers to start utilizing hands-on "experiments" and real-life examples from an early age.
"We want them to be actually doing the measuring and making inferences about whether mass determines the number of seeds in a pumpkin," Bretall said. "Part of my role is allowing them to see what an experiment is from an early age — they can't just answer questions about it on a test without seeing it and understanding how it works."
Oostburg uses practice tests to figure out where the teacher — not the student — needs to get better
Tamala Szyman, an English teacher at Oostburg High School, tries not to talk about the ACT much — she knows it's just not that important to most teenagers.
Instead, Szyman focuses on the "language of opportunity." In Szyman's class, that means it's sometimes OK to use improper English, especially if it's to be creative. But students must be able to use proper English when warranted — like for cover letters, professional emails or essays.
"We all use language in many ways — I love memes, I love creative uses of language, and improper English doesn't bother me in all cases," Szyman said. "However, in order for them to have the most opportunities, they need to know how to use standard English well."
And how does Szyman accomplish that? She gives them practice ACT tests twice a year. But with those, she's not testing the students so much as herself.
"Students are more than just numbers — it's true," she said. "But what I discovered was that being really focused on the data ... looking at where they struggle and where they're succeeding, what kinds of things are confusing them and how they're applying knowledge incorrectly allows me to be much more efficient."
When she administers the first practice exam — the writing and reading sections of a sample ACT — in September, the results inform her instruction. That way, Szyman said, she knows what to focus on for the next several months — especially when it comes to grammar.
In November, Szyman gives them another practice ACT. This time, it's to measure their growth and whether students are able to apply what they've learned to test questions.
She's then able to shift her focus, again, to whatever students are struggling with before they take the exam in March.
At no point does Szyman use the tests for a grade. She doesn't even share the results with them. Above all, she hopes they focus on applying the knowledge they gain to their writing, rather than some test.
Oostburg increased Advanced Placement participation ... by a lot
Just five AP exams were taken at Oostburg during the 2012-13 school year, state data shows.
At that time, Oostburg High School offered only two AP courses. And among the few students who took the courses — who were also usually at the top of their class — many opted not to take the AP exam at the end of year, out of concern they wouldn't be able to pass, recalled Terry Hendrikse, a high school science teacher.
But Hendrikse said the district worked hard to change the conversation around AP classes and tests.
Now, each student at Oostburg High School takes part in an academic career planning and mentoring program. The students are asked two questions:
— What career do you want to go into?
— What classes will best prepare you for that career?
From there, the student and a teacher or district administrator serving as a mentor — even Bruggink has a group of mentees — determine the student's class schedule.
If a student answered with a field or profession that involves going to college, Hendrikse said Oostburg teachers and staff strongly recommend taking at least one or two AP courses to prepare for the rigor ahead.
Currently, Oostburg High School offers eight AP courses, plus others that are offered online as independent courses.
And most students in those courses take and pass the corresponding AP test.
According to state data, 83 AP exams were taken at Oostburg in the 2017-18 school year — the latest available — and about 80% of students who took tests passed them.
That's up from 49 tests taken the previous school year, when the pass rate was about 71%.
College-bound or not, Oostburg gave students a real taste of careers
But what about the students who aren't sure college is for them? Or the students who flat-out aren't sure about what they want to do?
That's no problem, Bruggink said.
The district's mentorship program helps students figure it out.
"It's not a message that every student should go to a four-year college," Bruggink said, "it's more a message of what's the right fit for you?"
Take Braden Dirkse, who as a senior at Oostburg High School is participating in the district's youth apprenticeship program.
After spending the first two years of high school exploring careers and colleges with his mentor, he's now participating in the district's youth apprenticeship program, as an accounting apprentice for Viking Masek Global Packaging Technologies in Oostburg.
During the summer, Dirkse worked four days a week, and this school year he works every other morning. He earns school credit and gets paid for his work — but more than that, he has the opportunity to explore the accounting profession before committing to a major.
Dirkse isn't yet sure what he wants to do. He may not pursue accounting. He knows he wants to attend college, but he's not sure where. He's considering Purdue, Western Michigan or Grand Canyon University.
Still, Dirkse appreciates the experience — one he knows a lot of high school students don't get to have before college.
"Knowing what you don't want to do is just as valuable as knowing what you do want to do," he said.
"The skills I've learned would be beneficial for any job that you get in the future — like in accounting, I've learned attention to detail and getting things right the first time is important in the business field."
'I don't think there could be a better place'
Greg Dirkse, Braden's dad, said he's confident his son and his three younger children will be better prepared for college than many other kids.
Greg had considered himself a solid high school student in his day — his grades were above average and he only had to take the ACT once to get the score he needed for his school of choice. He graduated from Oostburg in 1995 feeling prepared for college and, someday, a career.
But when he recalls his first semester juggling classes and playing soccer at Carthage College, in Kenosha, what comes to the forefront of his mind is stress and exhaustion.
"When I came home for Christmas after that first semester, I was completely drained," he said. "But (Braden) is thinking about all the right things that I want him to think about — and it's all being reinforced by the school. I don't think that there could be a better place for (my kids) to be."
Though Oostburg continues to work toward improvement — they anticipate students will take over 100 AP tests this school year — it's worth reflecting on what it's already accomplished:
Seven years after the launch of its turnaround initiative and as many Wisconsin schools see declining scores in language arts and math across all state-mandated tests, Oostburg continues to enjoy a general upward trend in those marks.
Oostburg's ACT composite score of 23.6 for the 2018-19 school year was four points above the statewide average. That's also up 1.6 points from the previous year, ranking seventh out of 374 Wisconsin school districts.
And while student achievement and socioeconomic status often go hand in hand, the percent of Oostburg students who are considered economically disadvantaged actually rose by about 3 percentage points in the previous two years, to 19% in 2018-19.
Of other districts in the top 10 statewide for ACT scores, only Platteville, at 37%, had more students considered economically disadvantaged. By comparison, only about 2% of students at the first- and second-ranked school districts — Kohler and Whitefish Bay — were considered disadvantaged.
"We've been able to have an impact that has moved past (financial inequalities)," Bruggink said. "So when we talk about uncommon results, there's tangible evidence of that."
Although Oostburg's ACT scores have bounced around a bit over time, Carl said that's to be expected with such a small sample size. Overall, the trend is upward, and research affirms the actions Oostburg has taken over the last seven years, Carl said.
"This is what high-performing districts tend to do," he said.
These days, Hendrikse hears from former students that they felt they were better prepared for college or the workforce than their peers in a post-graduation survey that the science teacher sends out every year.
That's what matters most, he said.
"There's a lot of great stories about kids flourishing and thriving," Hendrikse said, smiling as he scrolled through survey responses. "We celebrate the test scores, but we don't forget everything else. This is holistic."
Information from: Sheboygan Press Media, http://www.sheboygan-press.com
An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Sheboygan Press
Information from: Sheboygan Press Media, http://www.sheboygan-press.com