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Younger Students Face Tough Test for 1st Time

Already up to their elbows in preparations for February's MEAP tests, Michigan school districts are bracing for an expanded testing program next year, involving more kids and more headaches for teachers, students and parents.

Starting next fall, children as young as 7 will be sweating through Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests when the state adopts testing for all children in grades three through nine.

Previously, the testing was for grades four, five, seven and eight. The test dates will move from February to October, which means teachers will spend a good part of September getting students ready for their MEAPs, which typically take three to five days to complete.

Metro Detroit districts -- already holding before- and after-school study sessions, hosting "MEAP Magic" shows and ordering "I Passed the MEAP" T-shirts in anticipation of the February tests -- also are hiring tutors, training teachers, expanding summer school programs and otherwise gearing up for the fall exams.

Parents such as Dan and Mary Moore of Warren are getting fed up with the focus on testing, which they say wastes valuable class time, stresses their kids and fails to gauge what children actually know.

"The parents met, and we were all hot about this," said Mary Moore.

Moore has a son at Pinewood Elementary and a daughter at Warren Woods Middle School. "I would rather pull my kids out the entire time the MEAPs are going on. It's pointless."

Michigan is expanding the MEAP to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which makes sweeping education reforms. The law demands that schools hit continually rising targets for the number of students who take and pass the exams. All states will be required to test every child in grades three through eight beginning next year. Michigan went one step further, to include ninth grade.

No Child Left Behind is meant to close the achievement gap by bringing all children to a level of "proficient" on state standardized tests by 2013-14. Schools that don't test enough students, or where too few children pass, can be labeled "failing" -- and face a range of consequences, from being required to provide kids with tutoring, to the firing of teachers and administrators or a state takeover.

David Plank, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said the expansion of the annual testing to grades three through nine "provides an opportunity for us to get a handle on what kids are learning. Right now, we take their temperature three times and don't really get a sense of what they're learning.

"If the testing is done well, it will give us an opportunity to gauge who is making progress and who is not, and to engage (poor-performing students) in some kind of remedial action before it's too late."

But that doesn't sit well with Dan Moore, who said the tests hold more benefit for officials and policy makers than for his two kids.

"We're here to learn, not take tests," Dan Moore said. "We take a week to gear up for the test and another week to take the tests -- that's two weeks, that's too much."

Bloomfield Hills mom Cindy Stevens said some kids fail the MEAP because they get so stressed taking the test. A group of moms at one of her Bloomfield Hills PTA meetings even had trouble with a practice elementary MEAP exam they took about two years ago.

"You could visibly see mothers getting nervous," said Stevens, who has a sixth-grader at Bloomfield Hills Middle School and a freshman at Lahser High School. "This was the elementary school MEAP -- and we got some things wrong.

"Kids who stress about tests start stressing as soon as they find out they are going to be taking it."

Trouble focusing

Critics wonder, too, how third-graders will fare on the MEAP. Some kids are just 7 years old when they start third grade, and there are huge developmental differences among third-graders.

"Some of our (third-grade) kids, that light bulb just hasn't connected yet," said Mary Pantere, principal at Memorial Elementary in Garden City.

The school has started testing their second-graders with a computer program called Tungston Benchmark Testing. Teachers will use results of the tests to find out what their students have learned what they need to know to pass the MEAP.

Many third-graders have short attention spans, and will have trouble focusing long enough to take the test. Joan Firestone, director of early childhood development for the Oakland County intermediate school district, said many third-graders "aren't very sophisticated about test taking."

"Just making sure each answer is lined up with the right hole can be difficult," Firestone said.

Phalanda Jones, whose son Jacob, 7, is a second-grader at Alexander Macomb Academy in Mount Clemens, said her child's school has hired three tutors to help kids prepare for their MEAPs. But she still believes third grade is too young for a standardized test.

"We're pushing our kids too fast -- we're rushing a little too much, and it's hurting us more than it's helping us," Jones said. "Maybe our children are not ready for this; maybe we should rethink what we're doing."Still, many policy experts believe that standardized tests are the best way to close the education gap across the country, where wide disparities exist in the quality of education delivered by schools.

The National PTA opposes the use of a national, mandated standardized test as the sole criteria for measuring the progress of a student, a school or a district. It believes that a range of factors -- including teacher competency, class size, parent involvement, and the quality of instructional materials -- should be considered when rating a school's progress.

But the group supports regular standardized testing as one measure of accountability for schools.

"When you use tests for what they're intended -- for remediation and to guide curriculum -- we view tests as a tool to help schools improve," National PTA President Linda Hodges said.

"One of the good things about No Child Left Behind is that it's requiring accountability," Hodges added. "And it's not an easy process, because it requires massive curriculum changes in some places."

Curriculum guidelines

Garden City mom Kim Biggs, who has a second-grader at Memorial Elementary, said she likes the idea of a yearly test to tell her how well her daughter is learning -- as long as the kids aren't tested on material they haven't been taught.

Some parents and school officials say their children are learning, but that's not reflected in the test scores.

"Seven out of every 10 our students get A's or B's, but unfortunately what we teach is not congruent with the state standards," said Dan Naubert, principal at Riverside Middle School in Dearborn Heights where school officials are reworking their curriculum to better align with the MEAP.

Next year, Michigan teachers will be handed specific grade level content expectations that will outline exactly what must be taught at every grade level. The guidelines are meant to ensure that teachers will instruct students in the material that will appear on the test. School officials across Metro Detroit say they're working hard to align curriculum with the new state guidelines.

Casey Reason, assistant superintendent for instructional services with Northville Public Schools, said aligning the curriculum with the MEAP is a major undertaking that can involve changing the sequence of what kids learn over many grade levels -- or even purchasing new age-appropriate instructional materials. He agrees that classroom instruction must be in line with the tests, but he worries that not all children will be able to keep up with the one-size-fits-all pace of learning outlined by the state.

"The notion that every student will be at grade level every time is a bit of a stretch," Reason said. "Students mature and develop differently; we have to be patient in our line of work."

Dan Moore of Warren is against telling teachers exactly when to teach students about the American Revolution, fractions or the mysteries of the solar system.

"Teachers' creativity will be lost and students will be almost like robot-children -- when you ask, 'What did you learn today?' everybody will say the same thing," Moore said. "To say it's my way or the highway, who made the decision that this is the right way?"

"The notion that every student will be at grade level every time is a bit of a stretch."

You can reach Karen Bouffard at (734) 462-2206 or kbouffard@ detnews.com. Sources: Detroit News research and the U.S. Department of Education Sources: Detroit News research and the U.S. Department of Education

— Karen Bouffard
Detroit News


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