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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Cottonwood Elementary teachers see entire classes hit 99 percent mark on standardized tests

Oct 25, 2018 04:25PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Kayla Williams, third-grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary, takes a precious couple of minutes at the end of the school day to fit in some reading time.

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Teachers all over the state achieve great things, and teachers at Cottonwood Elementary are no exception. Motivated by deep personal philosophies about education, teachers there have helped their students score exceptionally well on standardized SAGE tests.  

Third-grade teacher Williams is one of those teachers. Williams, who is going into her fifth year of teaching, explained that a 99 percent increase on the tests is the highest mark students can achieve, and the results of last year’s testing revealed that all of her students hit that mark. 

“It’s based on something called a median growth percentage, and it tracks progress regardless of whether a student starts on grade level, above, or below. At the end of the year, the goal for all students is to have progressed a full grade level, or in other words, 99 percent,” Williams said. 

She’s quick to add that she’s part of a team at Cottonwood. “I’m not the only one. Several teachers here have been recognized (for the same thing),” Williams said. 

Amie Butler, who also teaches third grade, has been teaching for 19 years. She believes kids need to be involved in the learning process. “I put a big focus on writing and teaching the kids proficiency skills. They are often grading themselves. Students who want to do better can go back and improve their scores. In that way they take ownership of their learning,” said Butler. 

Butler uses the Utah Compose writing program, which is available to Utah students grades 3-12. The online program aims to “improve writing through practice, immediate feedback, and guided instructional support.” (see

Williams says that despite her students’ excellent scores, neither she nor Butler “teach to the test.” 

“We’re creative, we brainstorm, we talk about thinking in different ways. We get comfortable making mistakes and talk about how that is a part of the learning process.” Williams believes it’s these skills that help her students test well. 

Williams also tries to do something fun right before testing. “We go for a run or do a cheer or have a snack. Just something fun to help them focus,” said Williams.

Williams and Butler, who have both taught at Title I schools in the past, recognize that when it comes to the proficiency baseline, Cottonwood has a demographic advantage over some other schools in the district. 

“We have a lot of parent involvement, which is huge. And we have a staff that goes above and beyond in terms of time and effort. We’re not dealing with several students who don’t speak English. But when we measure with MGP (median growth percentage), we still have to show a year’s worth of growth, regardless of where the student started at the beginning of the year,” said Williams. 

Williams and Butler said the culture at Cottonwood is one that makes students feel valued. “Everyone here is friendly. The secretary, the office staff, the librarian, the lunch workers — many of them know all the kids by name. That rapport with the students goes a long way,” said Williams. 

Down the hall from Williams’s classroom, Ana Alamo teaches fifth-grade reading and language arts classes. Her personal story demonstrates the potential each student has for success. Growing up in Texas, Alamo didn’t speak any English. She remembers her teachers usually putting her in a desk in the back of the class to just “forget” about her. 

Then, in second grade, she had a teacher who put her in the front, and started correcting her mistakes, which were many. “At first, I felt like she was picking on me — she kept telling me what I was doing wrong. But after a while of being corrected, I realized I was learning. That’s what made me want to be a teacher,” said Alamo. 

Because of that experience, Alamo has high expectations for her students. “I correct them so they know where they’re at and where they need to be. That way they’re engaged, and learning is more meaningful. For example, they need to learn to write a five-paragraph essay, so we’re working on that. But there’s lots of scaffolding, and we break it down into components,” said Alamo.

Cottonwood’s Principal Paulette McMillan is proud of the school’s success and culture. “Cottonwood’s teachers are the best! We are very student-centered at Cottonwood. Our students know that their teacher loves them and cares about them. I am very proud of the work we are doing,” said McMillan.