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Students hope test practice moves them near perfect

Kansas City Educator Comment: Under Amato's plan for test prep, since January, elementary and middle school students have altered academic schedules to include 60 minutes of language arts "test prep" and 60 minutes of math "test prep" in addition to their 90-minute SFA reading block, their 60-minute math instruction block, and their 60-minute writer's workshop block.

Total that and add a 30-minute lunch break, and you've got a 6-hour day right there. Where's the science? Where's the social studies? Where are the art, PE, music classes? Where is recess?

In the high schools, the second semester schedules were altered to accommodate: ACT prep classes that took the place of students' social studies curriculum; READ 180 for students in the lowest performance Lexiles (mandatory); language arts and math test prep (taking the place of real courses).

Test prep materials were photocopied and sent out to all the Kansas City schools--tons of paper!

Maybe it's small potatoes, but someone should turn in the Kansas City administration for copyright violation--photocopying all that test prep crap.

On a deeper level, kudos to the teachers union for speaking out. Now it's time to get tougher and do more than talk. As the Oakland teacher association and the Kings/Tulare Uniserv are showing, unions must get proactive about the destruction of education.

Kansas City educators must realize that children's education is at stake, and so is their profession.

by Joe Robertson

Fifth-grader Angela Jones gets the list started, standing balanced on one leg as she thinks about test preparation.

"We're doing practice MAP tests, power hour ..." Her eyes search as if she's recalling the names of state capitals. "SFA ... math practice ... "

To keep up with the high promises of ram-charging Superintendent Anthony Amato, Kansas City teachers have been plying students like Angela with new programs. And for teachers and principals, preparation for districtwide tests this month is reaching the boiling point.

"There is pressure like you wouldn't believe," said Craig Rupert, principal of Woodland Elementary School.

It's why fourth-graders at Woodland recently were using pencil and paper to explain the thinking that went into their answers about angles formed by clock hands. The responses match the format of the Missouri Assessment Program tests, known as MAP, which begin April 17.

"How do you know?" teacher L. Ann Towns said as she patrolled among the working children, looking for their thinking processes. "What's your strategy?"

Hour-a-day special courses are wedged into tight schedules along with so many more academic programs, including many at the middle and high school levels.

Super Saturdays, holiday school, science labs, math labs, Kaplan courses to prepare students for the ACT college entrance exam ...

Angela thinks it all may be working. The truth won't be known until scores start to emerge in August.

"I m trying not to be stressed about it," the 11-year-old says.

But some teachers and other onlookers wonder if Amato piled on too much.

Teachers union president Judy Morgan recently appealed to the school board and essentially said enough is enough.

It's time to step back, she said, and take stock of what's been done. Involve teachers more in decisions. Assess the results so far. Account for the millions of dollars spent.

Most of all: No more new programs this year.

"The whole world's gone topsy-turvy," Morgan said.

No one can say Amato didn't give warning.

Aiming high

"How's the first six months?" Amato said to an audience of central office administrators earlier this year. "It's been a slow, gentle pace, right?"

He paused with a sideways glance. A wry smile. Tittering from his staff. More likely they're suffering "whiplash," he said. "Neck braces are in the back. You can pick them up at the door."

Amato knows his reputation. It's what won him the job from a majority of the school board last May. A district in provisional accreditation and stagnant in test performance, graduation rates, ACT scores and other barometers was going to get an extreme makeover.

At the end of the line, the pressure is on Amato. While approving most of his rushed plans for this year, the board agreed on a series of targets for student performance that will be key in the superintendent's evaluation.

Among the list:

A five-point gain this year in the percentage of students scoring at proficient or above in communication arts and a 30-point gain by 2009. Similar gains also are sought in math.

A 20-point gain in the percentage of students reading on or above grade level this year through the Success for All reading program.

A 25 percent gain each year for the next three years in the number of students passing high school Algebra I.

More than double the percentage of graduating seniors taking the ACT by 2009 while improving the district's composite ACT score. This will be a challenge because composite scores generally decline as the number of students taking the test increases.

The pressure to perform spans into every classroom.

"When the programs hit, you feel overwhelmed," Westport High School Principal Derald Davis said. "... But the data show it's needed. Any grumblings still going on don't understand the need.

"My comfort to teachers is that we're all in this together."

Students are taking the ACT. The board budgeted up to roughly $800,000 for the Kaplan courses and materials, depending on how many juniors and seniors enrolled.

And now comes the MAP -- the monster, the test whose results produce all the labels that make educators chafe. You make the state's targets or you fail. You ve made adequate yearly progress, AYP, or yours is a school in need of improvement.

Most of the new programs jammed into the schools this year will be judged by MAP performance.

"It won't matter how well we're doing everything else," Rupert said, "if you don't hit that score."

Not enough time

Where do teachers find the time to teach MAP preparation? They can't trim any from the 90 minutes dedicated to the Success for All reading program, or the 75 minutes for math, or the 60 minutes of writer workshop.

Recess, at times, was curtailed in some buildings, although Amato blamed misunderstandings. Elementary students should be getting recess, he said.

Most often, principals and teachers say, classes buy time by rushing to cover science and social studies more quickly.

"There's not enough time," fifth-grade teacher Sharon Aklin said. "(But) you roll with the punches. My feeling is my kids will do well."

Towns said she saw many of the new programs helping students. They were dutifully taking their backpacks home with daily homework.

The veteran teacher has long been ramping up instruction every year for the state tests, calling herself a "MAP force." But this year they're doing the extra work while learning so many new programs.

"It's a lot," she said. "You have to be strong to do some of the things he's asking us to do."

Said Rupert: "We're all stressed out. But we're doing it. We're doing it good. We didn't have any choice."

Eyes on college

Westport junior Crishawn Perkins knows there are classmates who didn't think college was for them. They weren't interested in the ACT. They're not interested in more test prep.

And they for sure wanted nothing to do with this book in her lap -- the text for the Kaplan ACT preparation course.

It must weigh 10 pounds. A dense 700 pages. Students sacrificed an elective course for this.

"It broke the strap of my backpack," Crishawn said.

Historically, little more than 40 percent of the district's graduates took the ACT, compared with 70 percent statewide. On March 29, 71 percent of eligible juniors and seniors took it.

Students are talking about college, including many who don't have that conversation at home or with their peers, Westport teachers said.

"It makes them feel I am capable, " said Kaplan teacher Oralee Watkins. "People are getting accepted."

Whether Amato's overhaul of programs is accepted will depend on the results, beginning with the looming MAP tests.

"I ve been in the district a long time and this is a lot of new programs," Aklin said. "I hope they work. People have worked hard."

Some Kansas City School District teachers and other onlookers wonder if Superintendent Anthony Amato has piled on too much to get students ready for standardized tests.

— Joe Robertson
Kansas City Star


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