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NCLB Outrages

Kaneohe Kids and Teachers Feel Test Pressures

Ohanian Comment: The test frenzy, including targeting the 'near proficient' kids, is sickening. At least credit the reporter for quoting someone who points out how wrong it is.

Why is it that a teacher would consider giving up a career she loves--instead of revolting?

Benjamin Parker Elementary School's third-graders will bear a big weight on their little shoulders when they sit down for annual state testing beginning March 30.

Public schools are administering annual tests that determine each school's compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law's achievement requirements.

Some educators and parents are raising concerns about the math section of the upcoming Hawaii State Assessment tests.

They have made strides in the classroom recently and hopes are high that they will ace the Hawaii State Assessment, which serves as a school's overall report card.

But getting ready has been grueling, says teacher Lynn Mochizuki.

She puts in two or three extra hours a day at the Kaneohe school, and the pressure has caused a stress rash and a revision of her career plans.

"I'm seriously considering whether I can continue in this profession. There's just so much pressure," she says, visibly tired. "But I love the kids and want to see them do well."

For months, the school has been drilling students on the state math and reading standards found on the test. A certain percentage of the school's third- and fifth-graders must display "proficiency" in those subjects.

If they fail, schools risk being punished under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Recently, 24 schools were directly taken over by the state and will be "restructured" for persistently low scores.

Ben Parker made the grade last year and is going for a repeat. School staffers are working overtime, students take practice exams regularly, and subjects like art and music are being pushed aside by math and reading.

For example, Mochizuki asks her math class to pantomime a right angle. Forty-eight little arms suddenly shoot out in all directions, some colliding with nearby heads.

Eventually the whole class gets it right, with arms in "9 o'clock" position.

Other geometric concepts follow in a hybrid dance-math lesson designed to ensure that every hour of school time -- even dance -- touches on the core test standards.

"We've got to utilize every hour of the day (on math and reading) because it's make or break these days," Mochizuki said.

The efforts are paying off, said Principal Wade Araki. Students have made gains in recent school exams aimed at gauging progress.

Still, third-grader Kealina Elzey is looking forward to putting the state tests behind her.

"I don't like it," she says of the practice tests, though she loves school, especially math.

She's aware that the school is counting on her class, and doesn't particularly like that, either.

"It's hard getting the answers all right," she says.

Hawaii schools have a higher bar to clear this year when third-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders take the tests.

Last year, reading proficiency was required of just 30 percent of students, and 10 percent for math, for schools to earn the passing grade known as "adequate yearly progress."

Though nearly half of the state's 280 schools failed to achieve that last year, the bar rises this year to 44 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Results come back in the fall.

Farrington High School is reaching out beyond its Kalihi campus with twice-a-week study halls in the housing projects of Kuhio Park Terrace and Kalihi Valley Homes, home to many of the school's low-income students.

"Many of our students don't have a quiet place at home to study, so we began to ask, 'How else can we support our kids?' We realized we have to go to their homes," says Farrington Principal Catherine Payne.

The school, which missed AYP last year, also is holding weekly on-campus math cram sessions for selected students identified as near-proficient but needing an extra push.

"We're all a little stressed out but trying to come to grips with this because it's inevitable," says Brian Okada, head of the school's math department.

But the intense focus on the tests illustrates the "destructive" nature of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, says Dr. Arthur King, professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii and member of its Curriculum Research Development Group.

While lauding the schools' hard work, King says the law's requirements and its threat to withhold funds from nonconforming states puts educators under siege and disrupts teaching.

"I know of no responsible specialist in educational testing who believes that a single test is of sufficient quality to be used in making these high-stakes decisions," he says.

"We have good evidence that this is not a wise approach. A curriculum rich in ideas, thinking strategies, wide reading, verbal interaction, and general knowledge is more likely to improve test scores while it provides a solid education."

That's the approach at Kalihi Kai Elementary School, which made AYP last year despite large numbers of low-income and nonnative English-speaking students, groups that typically have a harder time in the classroom.

The school has done so by faithfully executing its own home-grown instructional system, introduced five years ago.

It encourages good citizenship by emphasizing cause-and-effect concepts and builds reading comprehension -- a common hurdle for many young learners -- by providing hands-on experience with a topic before asking kids to read and write about it.

"AYP is important to us, but it's not our top priority," says Principal Stanley Kayatani. "Our priority is to turn out good citizens."

King says state leaders should think seriously about bolting from NCLB.

But that would mean forsaking about $220 million in critically needed federal education funds that now supplement the Department of Education's tight budget, said Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto.

"That's not chump change," Hamamoto says.

She defends the efforts of schools, saying they still emphasize education of "the whole child." But she adds that in the No Child Left Behind era, the demands of testing can't be ignored.

"I would love to be able to test on, and get results on, the 'whole child.' But there are factors beyond my control that focus on (testing)," she said.

After stressing the test-related content for months, Ben Parker Elementary's Mochizuki plans to shift gears once the exams are done.

"I'll explain to them that the results are just one part of what they do here. It doesn't describe who they are," she said.


— Dan Martin



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