Despite high scores across the board, administrators, teachers and one parent with four children enrolled in the district’s schools who recently moved to Devils Lake, believe that standardized tests fall far short when it comes to evaluating the quality of education in the region’s public schools.


Despite high scores across the board, administrators, teachers and one parent with four children enrolled in the district’s schools who recently moved to Devils Lake, believe that standardized tests fall far short when it comes to evaluating the quality of education in the region’s public schools.

As reported in the Journal last week, the district saw all of its schools rise in rankings based on standardized test scores in the 2014-’15 school year. While the newly compiled numbers seem to indicate that schools in the district are improving, those who are invested in educating the region’s students insist that there is a lot more to the story.

“It’s nice, especially when we’re ranked so high as a district: the elementary schools, the middle school and the high school,” Superintendent Scott Privratsky said. “We feel very good about that, but it’s just one piece. I’d be saying the same thing if we ranked in the bottom third of everything.”

Dr. Jared Schlenker, principal of Central Middle School, which ranked in the top 20 percent of middle schools in North Dakota according to standardized test scores, agrees that while the school’s rank is encouraging, much more goes into educating students.

“In my eyes, standardized tests - if you’re talking about the importance of effective education - are a little bit lower on the ladder in my perception,” Schlenker said. “If you have strong relationships with students (it’s) going to snowball into something much more important than standardized tests.”

Echoing administrators from both Sweetwater Elementary, which ranked first in North Dakota based on 2014-’15 standardized test scores, and Prairie View Elementary, which rose 79 spots based on the same criteria, Schlenker says that building relationships with students is a key component in education.

“It starts with fundamentally having strong relationships with students, (which) leads to a strong culture in your school, which leads to better test scores,” Schlenker said.
That doesn’t mean that standardized test scores aren’t a factor when judging school performance, according to Schlenker, because state standards for the tests and the curriculum taught in the district go hand in hand.

“We have our state standards that we follow closely in all of our subject areas,” Schlenker said. “As long as our teachers are doing what they need to do as far as what is expected for the learning outcomes for our students, that should take care of itself by the time standardized testing takes place.”

Sharalee Gunther, who moved to the region in August of last year and who has two boys enrolled in Central Middle School and two boys enrolled in Devils Lake High School, says that her experience with schools here has been positive.

“I think the teachers care. The only way any place succeeds is by everybody - the parents, the administrators, the teachers, the students - they all have to care or it doesn’t really matter,” Gunther said. “From what I can see, the teachers really care about the students (and) the administrators really care about the teachers and the parents.”
Gunther and her family have a unique perspective on different approaches to education, as they have spent time abroad in both Yemen and China, each for three years. She taught elementary school students while in both countries and says that her experiences both overseas and in the states have informed her perspective on the provision of quality education.

“In comparison to overseas, the class sizes were a lot smaller, so the teachers could have a lot more one on one time with each student,” Gunther said. “I think there are benefits to both. What I love about here is just having the opportunity to (play) sports, and (Devils Lake) is big enough to have a lot of variety. There’s a lot of activities to choose from.”

Gunther also says that her family felt welcome upon moving to the region. “I remember my first day, we still didn’t even have a house to live in and I was trying to get Johnny and Everett (the youngest two of her four boys) signed up at Central Middle School,” Gunther said. “I just remember thinking how friendly the secretaries were, and then Mr. Schlenker actually came out and introduced himself to Johnny. They were super friendly and I thought that was really cool for a new parent coming in.”

Being a former teacher has given Gunther perspective on the different ways that quality education is measured, including the value of standardized tests as an indication of school performance.
“Sometimes standardized tests make it more about the result rather than the joy of learning,” Gunther said. “When you have less of the pressure to perform on a test, then teachers can be more creative and do the things that they love. I think that’s really important.”

One specific example of the attention local teachers pay to their students involved Gunther’s son Weston, who decided to take up the cello.
“My oldest son does cello, and Mr. Neukom actually offered to give him lessons even though he’d never taken cello lessons before,” Gunther said. “Just having a teacher that would be willing to sit down with a brand new student (and) meet with him weekly, for free, was really cool.”

Though rankings based on state standardized tests, which frequently change and are currently undergoing a fundamental shift in North Dakota from federal Common Core standards to state-sanctioned standards remain a big part of performance evaluation, tried and true methods of teaching still carry the day, according to Gunther.

“Kids can tell when a teacher is teaching because they love it and they’re passionate about it, and then that can’t help but go to the students,” Gunther said. “They’re excited, too. It’s not a chore. I think when (standardized tests) are the gauge of whether the school is successful or the child is successful, I don’t agree with that.”