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Some schools try to keep students focused with tests

Ohanian Comment: Can you imagine? Threatening kindergartners with 'Santa Claus is watching' to keep them 'on task' for a test.

by Keith Reid

Elementary schools have found a way to keep students focused as the holiday break approaches: Test them.

At Beckman Elementary in Lodi, kindergarten teacher LuAnn Casey said Lodi Unified School District's new trend of assessing students' academic levels through testing right up to the winter break has somewhat hampered the holiday fun in the classroom. Casey called the assessment process rigorous, even at the kindergarten level.

"To tell you the truth, there's such a push for standards and testing, we have to hustle to get in some celebration time," she said.

Casey admitted, however, that the "Santa Claus is watching" philosophy is a tried-and-true technique to keeping her youngsters on task.

"They don't want to be left off the list," she said.

Catherine Pennington, Lodi Unified's assistant superintendent of elementary education, lauds the assessment tests. She said holiday excitement, which usually resonates within the K-6 age group, can be an issue occasionally. The benchmark testing leaves little time for wiggle worms.

"We think it's well worth the time and effort," Pennington said.

She said teachers use the data to adjust lesson planning, and the tests help prepare students for Academic Performance Index tests used by California schools as a barometer for successful learning. Frances Hilliard, mother of a kindergartner, two first-graders and a fourth-grader in Lodi Unified, called the testing schedule "kind of ridiculous" and complained the number of tests her children take each year is out of hand.

"It's more for the administration than it is the children," Hilliard said. "My kids are testing four to six times a year for all these different reasons. They aren't having fun learning. They come home complaining that they filled in bubbles all day. They feel pressured, and I think it's unreasonable pressure. They aren't being given the basics to excel, just tested."

Ann Leale, mother of two Lodi Unified students, said she isn't opposed to the testing. She said her children, one in middle school, the other in high school, are college-bound, and the testing can be a strong preparation tool for the SAT and other college entrance exams awaiting them.

"It could be the difference between just getting into a college or getting into the college of your choice," Leale said. "It can also give you a gauge of where your child is at and what percentile their scores fall into nationally."

Students say the extra testing can be taxing, but they don't want their grades to slip.

Raveen Singh, 10, a Beckman fifth-grader, said he's ready for the break, and concentrating on his studies isn't always easy this time of year.

"It's hard to concentrate. A lot of kids are getting hyper in class. I think it's from too much sugar from cookies or Christmas treats."

Raveen's classmate Devon Pollard, 10, on the other hand, said staying focused is a matter of motivation.

"I just love Christmas, and I want to get good grades so that I'll have an even better Christmas," she said.

Susan Farley, a 34-year elementary teacher at Shasta Elementary School in the Manteca Unified School District, said times have changed regarding testing and assessment standards. She said her third-graders are assigned an average of three homework assignments a night, a much larger load than she assigned in the 1980s and 1990s, when standards weren't being measured by state and federal administrators.

She said students are being held more accountable than ever before at the elementary level. Earlier in her career, students normally made paper ornaments heading into the holiday break. Farley said that's no longer the case.

"There's a much stronger focus on state tests, especially language arts and math," Farley said. "Subjects like social science, science, arts and music take a back seat."

Other districts are implementing testing techniques that stretch to holiday break time as well.

Sylvia Ulmer, principal of Bush Elementary in Stockton Unified School District, said tests have been a major part of her school's holiday season. Still, Bush is making plenty of time to celebrate, she said.

"We have all these standards we have to make, and the kids want to do well on their report cards, so they stay pretty focused," Ulmer said. "But as soon as the testing is done, they get some breathing room. On Wednesday, the kids dressed up as elves and delivered hot chocolate and cookies to other students. Things like that are always going on."

Beckman Principal Lisa Hayes said she has received mixed reviews from parents on the rigorous line of testing. Some parents believe it takes too much time from instruction, while others are OK with it.

"I think the assessments play too large of a role, and things like the arts and music are taking a back seat," said Paul Lerna, father of three students at Lakewood Elementary in Lodi. "The tests have a time and place, but I'd like to see them take a cut on the drive toward assessments and create more of a balance for the kids."


— Keith Reid
The Record




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