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Saturday Is One for the Books

Cute title but it's misleading. These children are not using material that most of us would define as a book. Think of all the things these kids could (and should) be doing on a Saturday mornings--instead of working with Test Ready. Tom Loveless, education analyst at the Brookings Institution, claims, "Any extra time you can invest in learning is good." But what are kids learning from test prep?

Saturday test drill is one more way to restrict and control the lives of the Other. Every kid shown in the picture accompanying this article is a Black kid. Affluent white kids don't spend Saturday mornings doing test prep.

Good for the reporter for getting the name of the curriculum used into the story--even it comes at the end.

Nearly every time the teacher called out a question yesterday morning, 10-year-old Imani Payne's hand shot up. So did the hands of 11 other students begging to respond.

Imani's team in this lively fifth-grade class, the "Smarties," battled the "Intelligents" in a matchup of wits in math and reading comprehension that resembled a quiz show. At stake were bragging rights and dibs on teacher-supplied snacks in the coming week.

But the students at this Mitchellville school had a larger goal on this unusual school day: readying themselves for a battery of state language and mathematics tests.

Imani said she was happy to spend a Saturday morning at Lake Arbor Elementary, as she has for each of the past few weeks through a new program that Prince George's County schools are offering to about 3,000 students on 18 campuses countywide. "Most of my friends are here," she said. "The things I don't know in school, I can come here and practice."

She said the sessions also have primed her for test-taking: "what to eat, remember to get a good night's sleep, study the things I don't know and what I already know," she said.

Across Maryland, educators are trying to drive home those points to parents and students as public schools near a critical examination period early next month that will go a long way toward determining which schools are succeeding and which are not.

Now in the third full year of testing under the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Maryland School Assessment will provide a sharper picture of academic trends than has been available because analysts will be able to chart three consecutive years of test results for elementary, middle and high schools. Federally required testing in D.C. and Virginia schools will come in the spring.

This year, the benchmarks school districts must meet to make what federal officials call "adequate yearly progress" are tightening significantly.

"Pressure is definitely growing," said Ronald A. Peiffer, Maryland's deputy superintendent for academic policy. "You have a whole lot more work each year to move your students to higher levels."

In Prince George's, which has about 135,000 students, school officials are hoping to lift scores that are near the bottom of state rankings. Using test data, the state has identified 73 schools in the county as needing improvement, more than any other system in the state except Baltimore, which has 101.

Saturday school is part of the Prince George's district's somewhat novel strategy to reverse that trend. A D.C. public schools spokeswoman said she was unaware of a districtwide Saturday school initiative in connection with standardized tests. School officials in Fairfax and Howard counties reported the same. In Montgomery County, a nonprofit organization with private and county funding -- the George B. Thomas Sr. Learning Academy, based in Bethesda -- offers Saturday school from October to April to about 3,000 students for a one-time $15 fee.

"Our target is those students who need a little additional academic support," said Michael Thomas, head of the Montgomery academy. "We're focusing on closing the gap."

In Prince George's, the Saturday schools that began Jan. 29 are free, voluntary and open to students in grades 3 to 8; registration for the six-week program has closed. School officials reported a surge of parental interest at the outset. On the first Saturday, 1,627 students attended, and many parents queued up in long lines to enroll their children. The next week, 2,589 students attended. For each of the past two weeks, about 3,000 students were taught by about 260 county instructors. The program, officials said, is for children of every level -- high achievers, low achievers and those in between.

At Lake Arbor, parents and children bundled up for subfreezing weather hustled into the school shortly before 9 a.m.

"I'm very pleased with it," said Elizabeth Jones, 38, after dropping off her daughter, Olivia, 10. "She gets very good grades, but you can never learn too much."

"Anything is better than just the regular five-day-a-week school," said Chris Pinn, 34, who dropped off his son, Martel, 11. Pinn said he was impressed by the small size of the Saturday classes -- 15 or fewer students per teacher.

The program, which costs the district about $200,000, runs from about 9 a.m. to noon. County teachers are paid about $125 for each session. Parents drop off and pick up their children, and no lunch is provided. Youngsters work from books with a no-nonsense title, "Test Ready." The exams, which begin March 1, are on everyone's mind.

In one classroom yesterday, a teacher told third-graders working on math sets: "Don't spend too much time on any one problem. If you're stuck, move on." In another, a teacher coached fourth-graders on such oft-tested language concepts as alliteration and simile.

"This extended learning is part of test sophistication, helping children become prepared," said Marian Whitehood, a school district official who oversees the initiative. "Research says students spend a lot of time alone on Saturday, especially in front of the television. This is a first step for kids who really, really want to be here."

Officials acknowledge there are limits to what an abbreviated Saturday school can accomplish. But plans are in the works for Saturday sessions for targeting Prince George's high schoolers. Experts say such programs can't hurt.

"Any extra time you can invest in learning is good," said Tom Loveless, an education analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "Across the country, districts are feeling more pressure to perform. One common strategy has been, 'Let's find extra time for school.' "

— Nick Anderson
Washington Post


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