Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Schools cram for proficiency tests

High stakes pushing districts to better prepare kids

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        With state-mandated proficiency tests just weeks away, Ohio public school districts are engaged in an academic version of pre-March Madness.

        “The stakes are high,” said Dr. Tom Moffitt, principal at Evendale Elementary in the Princeton school district. “I call it the Olympics of testing. Unfortunately, there's too much emphasis on (the tests).”

        Dr. Moffitt's school is one of dozens across Ohio that are pulling out all the stops — before, during and after school — in creative attempts to stem pressure, prepare students and boost test scores.

        In Ohio, students take fourth-, sixth-, ninth- and 12th-grade tests.

        Since they debuted in 1987, proficiency tests have been the center of a controversy over how much is too much testing and whether teachers should focus so much energy in “teaching to the test.”

        In recent years, the tests have taken on greater importance as state-issued report cards are released for each district.

        The Ohio Department of Education report cards rank school districts in one of four categories — academic emergency, academic watch, continuous improvement and effective. The ratings are based in part on proficiency test scores.

        Like other educators, Dr. Moffitt wants to make sure his students are fully prepared. He has been asking proficiency test-type questions every two weeks since January during school announcements. Students who answer questions correctly receive gift certificates to Frisch's.

        Other examples of pre-March Madness:

        • Fourth-graders at South Lebanon Elementary in Warren County's Kings Local Schools (continuous improvement) enjoy NASCAR-style “pit stops” every Friday as test tune-ups. The pit stops help youngsters with test-taking tips (example: recognizing how questions about poetry differ from questions about fiction).

        • Felicity-Franklin schools (academic watch) in Clermont County are paying teachers $250 to tutor students after school, two hours a week for eight weeks. For the first time this year, the district is offering $200 to teachers for each student they assist who passes. The money comes out of the general fund.

        • Summerside Elementary in West Clermont schools (continuous improvement) is holding a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire game with practice proficiency test questions. Creekview Elementary in Middletown (academic watch) has been holding similar games. Prizes at Creekview include gift certificates to Towne Mall in Middletown.

        • Parham Elementary School in Cincinnati Public Schools (academic emergency) will again this year hold a pep rally the week before the tests. Students will chant, sing and perform skits about proficiency tests.

        • Eight teachers at Taft Elementary (CPS), along with Principal Arnetta Barnes, have made motivational promises to get kids to pass the proficiency tests. If the school meets goals set by the district on the number of children who need to pass, teacher Liz Hibbard will dye her hair purple, another teacher will teach on skates for a day and Ms. Barnes will dress and sing like Tina Turner.

        • Princeton schools (academic watch) have spent about $20,000 for development of practice tests, proficiency-based curriculum and lesson plans that are on-line for teachers.

        Educators say the creative teaching techniques are a safety net to reach kids who need an extra boost. They also want to curtail the jitters that plague test-takers.

        “The stakes are high for every district,” said Wayne Driscoll, superintendent of Middletown schools. “The tests have caused a lot of consternation and worry on everyone's part.”

        Parents are pitching in, too — especially in light of Ohio's fourth- grade reading guarantee.

        The guarantee, scheduled to take effect this fall,requires all fourth-graders to pass the reading part of the five-section proficiency test before they can advance to fifth grade — unless a disability excuses a child from taking the test or the principal and reading teacher agree the student is academically prepared to pass.

        (The guarantee is being reconsidered in the Legislature.)

        “We find fourth-grade students getting really nervous about proficiency tests,” said Laura Woessner, PTO president at Summerside Elementary. “We want to help them feel comfortable, get them ready in a fun way and help them relax a little bit.”

        Districts are committed to pay the price for success.

        The teacher incentives in the Felicity-Franklin schools could cost the district as much as $40,000, said Glenn Moore, director of curriculum and instruction. That's in addition to a districtwide continuous improvement plan, practice tests and remediation for students.

        Teachers say the effort is worthwhile — but not because of the money.

        “We're doing it because we want the students to pass the test,” said Angela Broadwell, a sixth-grade teacher at Felicity-Franklin Middle School.

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