High Stakes in Delaware
Ohanian Comment: If research really shows that it's important to hand out water, crackers, and cheese on test day, why wouldn't you also hand out these items on learning days?
At A.I. du Pont Middle School in Greenville, the numbers get better each quarter.
In the most recent, disciplinary suspensions dropped 50 percent and the percentage of students on the honor roll hit 37, double last year's high and up eight points over the previous quarter.
Under No Child Left Behind, however, those numbers don't count.
Standardized test scores are what matter next summer when a federal formula determines whether the school has made sufficient yearly progress to shed the poor ratings it has received under the nation's school accountability law.
So last week in the auditorium, with 2,700 bottles of water in cartons stacked behind the stage curtains, A.I. Middle's principal, Raymond Gravuer, tried to impress upon his 533 students the importance of educated guesses.
"Guessing is OK," he told the youngsters at a motivational rally held before testing started Thursday in public schools across Delaware.
And no matter what happens on one day of testing, Gravuer pleaded, "come back and do your best the next day."
Even if every student taking the tests passes, under the federal law, A.I. Middle would still get a failing rating if the attendance rate isn't 95 percent on every test day.
As for the bottled water, apple juice, pretzels, graham crackers and cheese sticks teachers will hand out to each student on each day of testing, they have nothing to do with luring kids to school. They have to do with brain research.
Gravuer and other principals in the Red Clay Consolidated School District learned that research said hydrated brains work better than dry ones and, as Gravuer pointed out, they don't want hundreds of kids wandering off to drinking fountains during test time.
"I went, OK, that's a no-brainer," Gravuer said. "I think everybody should get water."
The margin of error is so narrow under the federal law that A.I. Middle must meet all 29 academic targets the law has prescribed for it. If it misses one, the school proceeds on a track for failing schools that could ultimately see it lose resources and be put under private management.
State and federal laws said that youngsters who do poorly on tests can be held back a grade, which is why in the end, "you do everything you can" to help your students pass, Gravuer said.
Days before testing started, Melva Ware, a University of Delaware professor and a specialist in urban schools advising at A.I. Middle, said, "I think a lot of the tension in the air is adult tension."
But for eighth-grade students, testing is particularly stressful. They must meet the state standard in both reading and math in order to go on to high school. Up until then, only poor reading scores can keep youngsters back a grade.
"If you get a 2 or lower, you get kept back or you go to summer school [and try the test a second time]," eighth-grader Kahlil Crawford, 13, explained last week. Test scores range from 1 to 5, with a 3 considered passing.
That's why the teachers are constantly preaching about the importance of the testing, which Kahlil said makes him both nervous and appreciative. "It makes us focus more," he said.
By early Thursday morning when testing began, teacher Cindy LaRock said as she went from one class to another to relieve test proctors, "Everybody feels the pressure."
For one of the school's testing coordinators, Julia Keleher, doing everything she could for the kids that day meant racing up two more flights of stairs after spending two hours distributing test packets to teachers, lugging sacks of liquids and crackers up and down stairs to classrooms and retrieving 19 missing apple juice drinks.
With minutes to go before the 8 a.m. start, she went from her weeks-long job as a testing coordinator back to her primary job title, school guidance counselor, climbing to the second floor and popping into each eighth-grade class to tell the students that she and the other staff members believed in their ability to do well on the tests.
"I just wanted to cover the entirety of the experience, to let them know that whatever game they're walking into right now, I'm behind them 100 percent," Keleher said.
With the largest concentration of low-income students of any middle school in the state, and a largely black and Hispanic student body, A.I. Middle has all the student groups that have enjoyed the least success in American schools and on standardized tests.
Architects of No Child Left Behind argue that the law aims to correct that situation, along with the failure rates of special-education students. The controversial law, which some states are threatening to ignore, is the cornerstone of President Bush's domestic policy.
For highly diverse schools such as A.I. Middle, the law's rating formula is particularly difficult to succeed under. The more diverse a school, the more targets it has and the less likely it is to meet all of them, two studies by California researchers concluded. Each student subgroup, whether it is racial or based on family income, has an academic target in each subject tested.
Testing Thursday was for writing, with reading and math tests continuing until Friday and testing resuming in May for eighth-graders in science and social studies.
Writing is not high stakes, meaning no one can be held back a grade over it. But for those still learning English, who make up nearly 25 percent of the school's student body, writing a four-page essay is a particularly difficult hurdle.
Bilingual teacher Susan Kinney, in her first year of teaching, found some solace in the testing experience, despite its rigor for her students. Her eighth-grade students streamed into her classroom before testing started in another classroom, asking that she wish them luck.
"The fact that my homeroom kids came to see me this morning to get me to say good luck says more about me as a teacher than No Child Left Behind," Kinney said.
Reach Michele Fuetsch at 324-2386 or email@example.com.
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