Sunday, March 19, 2000

Ohio exam has pupils cramming

CPS sponsors study sessions over weekend

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Even after three Saturdays spent on extra study time, the butterflies are getting worse for fifth-grader Calvin Maxton as his date with the Ohio Proficiency Tests nears.

        “I'm a little nervous, yeah,” Calvin, an 11-year-old at Rockdale Elementary in Avondale, said Saturday on the final morning of a series of extra study days that began in February. “But getting the extra help has made me feel better about it.”

  Students throughout the state in grades 4 and 6 begin taking the Ohio Proficiency Tests on Monday. Testing will last four days.
  Students are tested on reading, writing, math, science and citizenship. Each test lasts between 11/2 and 21/2 hours.
  The results will be made public in June.
  Ninth- and 12th-grade students took tests last week.
  The tests are pass-fail, although individual scores are noted and placed in student files.
        Rockdale is one of three Cincinnati Public Schools that held sessions Saturday, as schools throughout the district have carved out extra weekend time to cram for the proficiency tests.

        Elementary students across the state — including the 50 or so who showed up at Rockdale Saturday — begin taking the tests Monday.

        The state education department uses the tests to measure the achievement levels of individual students.

        They are given to kids in all grades, but the state requires they be given to fourth-, sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders each year. Students who don't pass the ninth-grade test aren't allowed to graduate, although students can take the test as many as 40 times during their high school career, and again after their senior year.

        Starting in 2002, students who don't pass the fourth-grade reading portion won't be allowed to advance.

        State officials also use the tests to grade schools and dis tricts. On Feb. 28, CPS received the lowest of four possible grades, leading to increased emphasis on getting more children to pass the tests. Parents receiving pamphlets on how to prepare children for the tests.

        “Clearly, our promotion standards are tied to these tests,” said Rockdale principal Arthur Houston, who is in his first year at the 610-student school.

        Last year, 16.5 percent of fourth-graders at Rockdale passed the reading portion of the test compared to 33.6 percent of all CPS fourth-graders.

        The state standard is 75 percent, causing many in the community to clamor for higher test scores.

        “The challenge has been to educate the students and the parents to the fact that life moves on beyond the proficiency tests, and that we are trying to give a well-rounded education,” Mr. Houston said.

        The tests have been called into question by some teachers and parents around the state. Criticisms include that they are racially biased, too demanding of the students, and too intrusive into classroom curricula.

        Mr. Houston said the tests have their place, but he worries that with instructors teaching to the test, other subject matter is neglected.

        “The presidents aren't asked on the third-grade citizenship test, so the kids don't get it in class,” he said. “That's something I think should be taught, but we just can't get to it.”

        Amy Cleveland, a fifth-grade teacher at predominantly black Rockdale, said there were several questions on last year's tests that could be considered racially biased.

        “There was one that showed five white kids and asked for the student to infer how they got sunburn on only one side of their face,” Ms. Cleveland said. “Another question talked about the rowing team, like any of these kids would know about that sport.”

        But Saturday's session went beyond reviewing possible questions and answers. Students also learned relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation along with other test-taking skills.

        Only children without discipline problems were invited to attend the Rockdale session.

        Mr. Houston denied trying to skew the scores higher by giving star students more attention, saying all children were welcome if a parent accompanied them to the classroom.

        “If our teachers are going to give up their Saturday to help out these kids, they should be able to pick the kids,” Mr. Houston said. “Besides, this is only a pass-fail test, and the state only looks at how many kids pass the test, not the average score.”

        Several parents said that their kids have been anxious about the tests, even though the tests won't affect grades or even determine whether students advance to the next grade.

        Still, parents felt the Saturday sessions were worthwhile.

        “For me, the sacrifice is not that great,” said Miya Wilson, who has four kids at the school. “If they would rather be in school than sitting around watching cartoons and eating cereal, than I'm all for it.”

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