Mobile County schools excite students about standardized tests
Ohanian Comment: You say pep rally; I say indoctrination. Let's call the whole thing off.
Hundreds of students at Leinkauf Elementary school in midtown Mobile gathered in the courtyard one afternoon last week to cheer.
"Two. Four. Six. Eight. Our scores will be the best in state. Leinkauf! Leinkauf! Go Leinkauf!" they shouted, the first of several similar chants teachers had written just for the occasion.
The students were at a pep rally designed to prepare them for two weeks of state-required elementary and middle school standardized testing, which began Wednesday. High schoolers have already completed their exams for the year.
"Tests have always been important, but there's so much more emphasis on them now," said Leinkauf's assistant principal, Michelle Dumas.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that every student in America perform at grade level by 2015. States use test scores to measure progress toward that goal and to rate and sometimes penalize schools.
Alabama's State Department of Education introduced its new set of standards last August, catching many schools off guard.
Eighty percent of Alabama's schools failed to meet the criteria, known as "adequate yearly progress," many simply because too many students were absent on test days.
Fifty-six percent of Mobile County's schools and 77 percent of Baldwin's did not meet the goals.
If those campuses don't improve this year, students at those schools will be able to transfer elsewhere. If the schools fail year after year, they can eventually be restaffed or taken over by the state.
Schools across Alabama are getting more creative in the ways they're encouraging students to come to school during these two weeks and do well on the tests, according to state schools Superintendent Joe Morton.
The Mobile County Public School System has two billboards -- one on Spring Hill Avenue and another off Interstate 10 -- reminding students and their parents of the test dates. The school system has placed banners at each of its 100 schools and distributed 67,000 bumper stickers to students with slogans such as, "Do no less than your best on the state test."
Many schools are offering pizza, skating parties or other incentives to students who come to school every day during the testing. Officials at some schools are even driving to absent students' homes and picking them up so that they can come take the exams.
Students themselves know the repercussions.
"What we do on this test is going to show the whole state what we do at this school," said Leinkauf fourth-grader Christian Fisher.
"It's very important," added classmate Nastassja King. "We'll compare our scores to other schools, and we want people to think our school is good."
Supporters of No Child Left Behind say the act is already improving student performance. The 2001 law requires schools to break test scores down by students' race, economic background and other factors to show which demographics aren't doing well.
Schools are then given federal money to offer tutoring programs, hire reading and math coaches or do a number of other things to try to improve those students' achievement.
Critics, though, say No Child Left Behind places too much emphasis on standardized exams, causing teachers to have to teach students how to take the tests rather than giving them a full education. A group of Mobile County teachers has filed a lawsuit saying that new requirements are causing them to have to fill out too much paperwork, resulting in a decrease of valuable classroom instruction time.
Danny Goodwin, a director of the Mobile County chapter of the Alabama Education Association teachers union, said he sees nothing wrong with the increased efforts to get students pumped up for the test. Teachers are doing what they have to do to survive under No Child Left Behind, he said. Goodwin, though, said he wishes that more emphasis was placed on learning and less on scores.
"It's not the teachers' fault. It's not even the school system's fault," Goodwin said. "We're being pressured by the government to make AYP (adequate yearly progress), and the only way to do that is by scoring well on standardized tests."
To meet state standards now, student test scores must be high, and an average of 95 percent of the pupils must attend class every day. Most schools, though, are failing due to a new category known as "test participation," which requires that at least 95 percent of the student body show up and take the tests.
All it takes is one demographic of students failing in any one of those three categories for an entire school to be labeled as failing.
Elementary and middle schools are rated based on student performance on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test, introduced for the first time last year. Students must also take the Stanford Achievement Test so that they can be compared to pupils in other states.
High schools are judged by scores on the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, with dropout rates being factored in.
Gayle Ligon, parenting specialist with the Mobile County Public School System, said the district established a task force of educators and parent volunteers last fall to try to increase test participation rates and scores.
Teachers held conferences with students and their parents to go over last year's scores and review each child's strengths and weaknesses.
Ligon has spoken to students at several schools about how to prepare for the test: Get a good night's sleep; eat breakfast; arrive to class on time and follow directions.
"I try to reduce their anxiety by telling them, 'Don't panic. You can only answer one question at a time,'" Ligon said. "I wouldn't say that the students are under a lot of pressure. But I do think that they want to do well. They know the expectations are high, and that's good."
Ligon said the billboards were donated for the county schools, but the district did pay for the 100 banners and 67,000 bumper stickers. The school system held a contest to determine which student could write the best slogan. The winner got a laptop computer.
Most schools have stepped up their test efforts this year, Ligon said.
At Mary B. Austin Elementary in Spring Hill, teachers recently put on a fashion show, modeling vocabulary words that could be on the tests.
Mae Eanes Middle School in Maysville offered students with perfect attendance during testing 50 percent off their prom tickets.
Just before spring break, Belsaw-Mt. Vernon School had a "We're going to win" on the standardized tests promotion, allowing students to wear a shirt promoting their favorite team.
The principal at Fairhope Elementary has offered a "big surprise" for students with perfect attendance throughout the testing period.
Gulf Shores Elementary teachers are doing special art projects and outdoor activities every afternoon following the morning tests to reward students. And students in the grade with the highest attendance at Gulf Shores Middle each exam day get an extra afternoon break.
Some schools offered trips to Six Flags in New Orleans for students who perform well on the tests or to a Mobile BayBears baseball game if students don't miss exam dates.
When last week's heavy rains flooded homes and streets in Baldwin County, many parents called Elberta Middle School, worried because their children were going to have to miss parts of the test, said school counselor Peggy McCarthy.
School officials decided to postpone Thursday's tests until Friday to accommodate the high number of absences.
"People were panicking," McCarthy said. "We were just glad to have that kind of concern. The students are taking it seriously and seem to have really put their hearts into it."
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