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NCLB Outrages

Schools prepare new tests: Teachers set strategies to help third-graders with U.S.-mandated exams

"If I mess up the other teachers will know," worries a third grader.

By Rick Karlin

Imagine third-graders trying to answer SAT questions.

Something like that will happen this week as New York, in keeping with the federal No Child Left Behind act, tests nearly a quarter-million third-graders in reading, writing and listening.

Because this is the first time kids as young as 8 years old will take these tests, teachers across the state have been coaching their students on test-taking strategies as well as English skills.

And third-graders are not the only ones being tested.

Thanks to the NCLB act, all students between grades 3 and 8 will be tested in English and math this year. In previous years, only fourth- and eighth-grade students were tested in New York.

All told, the number of kids being tested will rise from about 600,000 to 1.75 million this year.

Many of these youngsters have taken internal tests schools use to keep track of student progress. This year's test results will be publicized and, inevitably, comparisons will be made between schools and districts. And in a new twist, each student will have an identifying number that allows teachers and parents to track year-to-year scores on the Internet.

"It's a huge undertaking," said Sharon D'Agostino, principal at Malta Avenue elementary school in Ballston Spa.

Like other districts, Ballston Spa has hosted meetings to inform parents about the tests. It has also offered after-school tutoring for kids in danger of failing.

State education officials downplay any stress or extra work that may result from the expanded tests. "By and large, these are in the same format we have had in grades 4 and 8," said Deputy Education Commissioner James Kadamus.

Officials also stressed that students will be spending less than 1 percent of their school year on the tests, which for fourth-graders run 45 minutes per session.

Still, a visit to Guilderland Elementary School on Thursday made it clear that a good deal of time and effort is going into preparing for the tests.

Part of it involves explaining the concept of a timed, standardized test to third-graders.

"My concern is you've got to spend a lot of time teaching the format," said Principal Dianne Walshhampton.

"Please remember your name, the title of your piece and the date," teacher Jo-Ann Gejay told her third-graders before they began a practice editing session Thursday afternoon. The new third-grade tests ask students to "edit" a written passage, looking for capitalization and punctuation errors.

That part is similar to the SAT, which has recently added an editing component, said Nancy Andress, Guilderland's assistant superintendent for instruction.

Other than that, the two tests are obviously different and Andress, like others, has wondered how much can be gained by testing 8-year-old students.

"It's always an issue because, developmentally, third-graders are so young. What does the test really mean for them?" she asked.

Kadamus, though, noted that recent strides in research about how the human brain develops make such testing increasingly worthwhile.

One thing is for sure: Administering and scoring more than a million additional tests adds plenty of expense and logistical problems. Andress figures her district will spend $100,000 to administer and score the new tests, including hiring retired teachers to handle the grading. Since current teachers will also help score, substitutes will be needed, too.

"January, February and March are going to be very busy months," she said.

Despite that furious pace, the Education Department doesn't expect to post results of the fourth-grade tests before July. It hopes to distribute scores more quickly in future years, but Kadamus stressed that double-checking results and making sure the tests are sound takes time.

That's all beside the point for third-graders taking the test, who seem mostly worried about pleasing their teachers.

Gejay's students were rapt with attention as she got them ready for their "editing conference," in which the youngsters would practice checking a written passage for correct capitalization and punctuation. She reviewed test-taking tips such as reading each passage for comprehension, then for punctuation and spelling errors.

After "supply managers" gathered red pencils and other materials for their respective editing teams, the kids went to work.

"I've been practicing a lot over the break," said Victoria Burnham, 8. The repetition, she said, has eased her anxiety over doing well on the test.

But Brent Katlan, 9, is still worried about getting a good score, mostly because he wanted to get on the good side of whomever his fourth-grade teacher will be. The kids are well aware that teachers across the grades would be looking at their reading scores.

"If I mess up, the other teachers will know," Katlan said.

— Rick Karlin
Albany Times Union


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