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Schools Teach To Avoid Closure As Testing Nears

Thousands of third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students start taking state-mandated tests this week, and Oklahoma teachers and administrators said they are feeling the pressure.

Poor results can lead to school closings or reorganization of staff -- areas that cause concern for Michelle Anderson and her teaching staff at Westwood Elementary.

State-mandated testing

A two-week testing window starts Monday in Oklahoma's 541 school districts.
Students in grades three, five and eight will take state-mandated tests.

Field testing will be done at some schools for fourth- and seventh-grade students.

Third graders will take norm-referenced tests, which compare achievement with that of students in other states. Students who score in the 50th percentile are considered to have performed better than half the total students who took the test.

Fifth- and eighth-grade students will take criterion-reference tests, which measure whether students know information the state's academic standards require. They will be tested in reading, math, science and social studies. Writing tests were administered in February.

The Oklahoma City school is among about a dozen that have been put onto the state's "needs improvement" list the past four years.

Westwood staff already are planning for the worst-case scenario -- a fifth appearance -- but remain optimistic that teaching help brought into the school this year will make a difference when students are handed test booklets Monday morning.

State schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett said students face too many tests, but basing student performance on only one or two exams would be undesirable.

"I think an array of assessments really gives you a better picture of individual student performance, where they may blow the ACT," Garrett said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires the state legislation to monitor student progress and help schools not showing adequate yearly progress on state-mandated exams.

At Westwood, an academic coordinator was brought in to help improve student math scores. A staff specialist is helping with reading skills.

One opportunity
Even with bilingual teachers and the 100 business leaders who volunteer as reading tutors, they're not always enough to help a school that has a 50 percent student body turnover each year.

Fifth-grade teacher Marty Fint previously taught at one of the city's highest-performing elementary schools. Now he's in his third year at Westwood.

"We have an idea of the skills that will be covered on the test, but there's always that element of what do they really know, and I think a lot of it has to do with their attitudes they come in with on the days they test," Fint said. "They have one opportunity to take a test. There is no retake."

The structure of Westwood's school calendar causes even more concerns when it comes to testing. The year-round school returned last week from a three-week intercession, giving teachers only a few days to prepare students for the testing window.

State officials said for a school to show adequate yearly progress, its students must meet baseline scores in reading and math on the academic-performance index. Schools must have a minimum score of 622 on reading tests and 648 on math exams to meet the baseline. The maximum score possible from the state is 1,500.

At least 95 percent of students have to be tested, and attendance rates or graduation rates also are considered when figuring progress.

The federal legislation requires a school be placed on the improvement list if even a single subgroup of students fails to meet the testing benchmark.

According to the state Education Department, schools showing up on the list numerous times must create a restructuring plan that could include replacing all or most of its staff or suggesting the state take over operations. Schools would have to use the plan only if they made the list for a fifth year, officials said.

Tests to hit Internet
Garrett said the Legislature controls the testing system, including setting the testing window each year. The state's first mandated test came during the 1988-89 school year.

Although only three grade levels this year are taking state-mandated tests -- third, fifth and eighth -- by the 2006-07 school year, Garrett said grades three through eight will be tested.

But good news is ahead, Garrett said. Within two years, she expects all testing to be completed online, giving students and teachers instant results. Online testing also could give teachers more time to prepare students for the exams.

— Michael Bratcher
The Oklahoman


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