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NCLB Outrages

Schools flip over testing: Many offer incentives for kids to be on time for standardized exams

Ohanian Comment: Meanwhile, in Birmingham, the school district continues to issue "official termination" papers so certain high schoolers won't show up on test day. It is another way of managing the scores.

By Challen Stephens

At Lincoln Elementary School this week, students earn a dollar a day for arriving on time. At Morris Elementary, they earn the promise of a popsicle after the morning test.

At West Huntsville Elementary this week, those who make it to school on time earn a raffle ticket and a chance to win one of six new bikes perched on the school stage.

"If they are here, they get a treat," said Gladys Branch, principal of Rolling Hills Elementary. Her school is providing potato chips to "chip away at" and popcorn to "pop the top off" this year's two-week batch of standardized tests.

For Huntsville schools, the annual ritual began Tuesday and runs through next Wednesday. Third- through eighth-graders will spend less than two hours most mornings taking a portion of the Stanford Achievement Test and the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test. All Alabama school systems have similar schedules over these two weeks.

But throughout north Huntsville, where schools have struggled to meet testing goals, many schools mark the event with increasingly elaborate pep rallies, parades and schoolwide themes. Classrooms are rife with promises of pizzas and movies, bowling parties and sundaes.

At Morris, disciplined test-takers earn a chance to win toys and even a small TV set, said Principal Tina Greer. At Lincoln, well-behaved students can win milkshakes, hot dogs and doughnuts, said curriculum specialist Melinda Clark.

At West Huntsville, Principal Barbara Johnson offers students a chance to nab tickets to a movie at the school and coupons for a concession stand for "being quiet, being on task, working diligently."

The small trickle of money underwriting these events comes from wherever the principal can find it, from churches and charitable groups, PTAs and even straight from teacher's pockets.

So why are there so many goodies, so many incentives and rewards? Just what is at stake over these two weeks?

The answer, because of expanding federal regulations under the No Child Left Behind Act, has never been more complicated. But the short version is: reputation.

For all schools, the objective is no different than it is for an individual student. Pass every subject on the tests.

These days that not only means posting sufficient average scores in math and reading among all students, but also when sorting students into small groups by race and socioeconomic level and special-education status.

Plus, many rewards this week are aimed at simply getting students to school and seated on time, regardless of how well they do. That's because if fewer than 95 percent of students take the tests, a school fails to meet one of its annual goals.

And if a school misses even one goal, it fails to make "Adequate Yearly Progress." For each school, those results will become a matter of public record come August. Last year, half of Huntsville schools failed to meet every goal.

For many the low rating was of little direct consequence. But for certain schools, those that receive money to offset neighborhood poverty, low scores two years in a row can lead to penalties beyond a sagging reputation. These include allowing all students to transfer to another school and being required to hire outside tutors.

Historically, public schools have been run by local school boards with minimal state oversight. In 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act and launched a new era of federal supervision, one that slowly superseded the old Alabama test-and-tag system of "alert" and "caution." The federal act includes the stated goal of having every single child testing on grade level in math and reading by 2014.

To enforce the new rules, the federal government used the threat of withholding money. If schools don't comply, they can lose dollars that come through a federal grant called Title I, money intended to pay for extra computers and even extra teachers to help offset neighborhood poverty.

Meanwhile, schools that aren't in poor neighborhoods and don't qualify for Title I money run few risks from low scores.

So across town in south Huntsville, from Farley to Monte Sano Elementary, where scores are traditionally higher anyway, the fanfare is minimal and there are no rewards. Some schools offer extra snacks to fortify test-takers this week. And some offer a final treat, such as the professional production of "Alice in Wonderland" to follow testing at Mountain Gap Elementary.

But there are few kickoff extravaganzas.

"We try to de-escalate the pressure," said Principal Brad Scott at Monte Sano, where he said the test is mainly announced through PTA and newsletters.

The same philosophy applies in Madison and Madison County schools. "Basically, we've just got our regular program in place. We've done all you can do to possibly prepare," said Principal Dan Evans at New Market in Madison County Schools.

Bart Ferguson at Rainbow Elementary in Madison said his school made its testing goals two years in a row and was not doing anything special this week, but he sympathized with the efforts in Huntsville. "I understand. You've got to get them through the door."

Even at Highlands Elementary in north Huntsville, which has a long history of passing test scores, Principal Mike Livingston said the school has made little fuss.

But at Terry Heights Elementary, which for years had bounced on and off state warning lists, teachers went with the allure of an Olympics theme this year, opening on Monday with a torch-led procession followed by a pep rally.

This week and next, the most disciplined students during the test will earn a gold medal, which comes with pizza, sundaes and a goodie bag. Bronze medals bring a goodie bag. "Everybody will get something and everybody will get some sort of medal," curriculum specialist Mary Turner said.

At Lakewood Elementary, the school draws incentive from its own students. The younger children, who don't have to take the test yet, made posters and wrote notes to motivate their older schoolmates. The Lakewood kids will probably conclude testing with a bowling party, Principal Ann Marie Batista said.

"They know that it matters. I don't think we're talking to them like this is your life," Batista said. "But it gives us a chance to find out how much they've grown."

— Challen Stephens
Huntsville Times


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