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NCLB Outrages

Test Time: Students spend hours preparing for assessments

Ohanian Comment: When I first read this piece, I was snippy, saying Really, there's no comment. The reporter cheerfully reporting on "Benchmark Time." With no thought of questioning it. One can only wonder if the teachers or parents have any doubts. Rereading it, I see that I was really ticked off by the teacher silence. What Verderosa does is offer a solid, detailed description of the way things are. Maybe it isn't her job to question teachers about their willingness to go along with "Benchmark Time."

By Christina Verderosa

Every Monday through Thursday, starting at 2:30, students in grades three, four, and five, at DeWitt Elementary School stop their other activities and hold “Benchmark Time.”

Almost since the day school began, students and teachers have been preparing their students for the increasingly critical state Benchmark tests.

Last Thursday, students in Karen Hawkins’ fourth-grade class used their Benchmark time to practice with calculators. Hawkins wrote the first problem — 299 divided by 4 —on the board and walked the students through the process.

“What do we put in first?” Hawkins asked. One hand after another shot up. Some students said 4, but most came up with the right answer, 299. After going through the procedure step-by-step to come up with the correct answer, 74.75, Hawkins then showed them how to solve the problem the old-fashioned way on the board, once again taking the students through it step-by-step.

Hawkins told the students it was important for them to know how to solve the problem with a pencil and paper, but “on the test we won’t have time for that.”

This group of fourth-graders has had some experience with standardized testing after taking the new third-grade Benchmark last year. Most of the students thought the third-grade test was easy, but one girl admitted it was “a little easy but a little hard, too.” But the students agreed that they knew just how important these tests are.

Beginning Feb. 22 with the grade 3-8 writing prompts and continuing until April 25 with the last of the high school end of course exams, only the seniors will not be taking any standardized tests. Students in every other grade, from kindergarten to 11th, “will be involved somehow, some more than others,” test coordinator Nancy Briggs said.

The biggest burden will fall on students in grades 3-8, who will take both the Arkansas Benchmark tests and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS). Briggs explained that the two tests measure student achievement differently.

The Benchmark tests are “criterion-referenced tests,” which measure how well students have learned the Arkansas frameworks. These frameworks are “minimum competencies,” Briggs said, that the State of Arkansas has determined that students at each grade level should know.

The ITBS, on the other hand, is a “norm-referenced” test, which compares student performance against a nationwide group.

Most of the attention is focused on the Benchmarks, for good reason. These are the tests that determine if a school has made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and Arkansas Act 35. Under the provisions of NCLB, all schools must show progress in their test scores each year until the 2013-14 school year, when all students are supposed to score proficient.

Any schools that do not meet their AYP goals are placed on the school improvement list. The longer a school stays on school improvement, the more it is subject to sanctions. These include increasingly stringent requirements to offer tutoring and school choice and develop detailed school improvement plans. If the school stays on the list for five years, it could be “restructured.”

The stakes are highest at DeWitt Middle School, which is in its second year on school improvement, primarily due to low math scores. A visitor has only to walk in the front door to see the effort that is being made this year to bring up test scores. The hallways are filled with colorful signs illustrating mathematical formulas, created by James Guest’s art classes. In the eighth grade corridor, 3-D paper models of geometric shapes, made by Suzette Noble’s students, hang from the ceiling.

The students had varied opinions on whether or not making the shapes was useful. “We’re already supposed to know this,” Brandy Sherrell said.

However, Madison Mayfield was adamant that it was worthwhile. “Everything, the roots, the formulas are going to help in some way,” he said. “The formulas may not be on the test this year, but they’re going to come back somewhere.”

The end-of-course algebra, geometry and literacy exams are also part of the Benchmark tests. DeWitt High School has had strong scores in math for the past few years, but literacy scores have lagged far behind. The high school was placed on school improvement after 11th-grade literacy scores came in at a dismal 23 percent scoring at proficient or above. The pressure is on this year to show big improvement, and 11th-grade English teacher Angela Criss and her students are feeling the heat.

The students meet the subject of Benchmark tests with a chorus of loud groans, but once that has subsided, students say they are ready to do well this year.

“We’ve had a lot of preparation,” Maegan Cardin said as she and her classmates handed in their latest writing assignment, an autobiographical essay. “We’ve written a lot of essays,” Ben Watts added.

Criss taught at Salem High School, which had some of the highest literacy scores in the state, before coming to DeWitt and is hoping the methods that were successful in Salem will also work in DeWitt. Her students are confident they will.

“[Criss] really has worked with us on our writing skills,” Timothy Frye said, “and she’s been helping us with the Accelerated Reader [program] too.”

Criss said what she is teaching the students is important, even if they didn’t have the Benchmark test. “Reading and writing skills are something we would want the students to have no matter what.”

Principal Glenn Johnston said there is plenty of help available, but students are not taking advantage of it. Under a program funded by the Delta Initiative, both the high school and middle school have after-school tutoring programs to help students bring up their scores, but right now the programs are not mandatory.

However, that will change. The State of Arkansas will require any student who does not score proficient on the end of course exams to attend a remedial course or lose credit for the class. A student could get a passing grade in the class but still not receive credit if his or her Benchmark score is below proficient. That requirement takes effect at the end of the current school year.

Johnston said, “We know [after-school tutoring programs] work.” A few years ago, when math scores were low, “the math teachers set up their own tutoring program” and scores went up considerably.

However, Johnston stressed that everyone has a share in bringing up test scores, not just Criss. “We want them writing in the ninth grade so by the time we get them to the 11th grade, they’ll be ready.” Also, it’s not just the English teachers who need to concentrate on writing. “Cross-curriculum has got to happen!” Johnston said.

Last year, Benchmark tests were added for the third, fifth and seventh grades, and this year, in addition to the literacy and math tests, fifth- and seventh-graders will take a science field (preliminary) test. In Gillett, fifth-grade teacher Don-na Barnett and seventh-grade science teacher Dennis Walls are doing their best to get their students ready.

Barnett said she and Walls joined a science consortium at the educational cooperative in Monticello and have been to numerous meetings. “We have also gotten some sample questions from other states,” she said. But Barnett said the most important step is “we’re following the frameworks. That’s what we’ll be tested on.”

The students do have an advantage in that they have taken Benchmark tests in earlier grades, so “they know the format.” However, “we don’t know how in-depth the test will be,” she added.

— Christina Verderosa
DeWitt Era-Enterprise


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