Thursday, February 28, 2002

Schools gear up for state test time

Proficiency exam stakes are high

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's the academic version of March Madness.

        With Ohio Proficiency tests less than a week away, Greater Cincinnati schools are scrambling to make sure students are as ready as they can be for the statewide tests.

        That means “Boot Camp” in Kings Local, “bubble tests” in Milford, tutors in Cincinnati and American history rhymes in Mount Healthy.

        The topics: writing, reading, math, citizenship and science.

        The dates: Monday through March 8 for all Ohio ninth-graders in public and private schools and Monday through March 15 for fourth- and sixth-graders in public schools.

        The stakes: High school students must pass the ninth-grade test in order to earn an Ohio diploma, and test results are one of the measures by which school districts are graded on state report cards. (The others are attendance and graduation rate.)

        “You take pride in the proficiency scores. Our district made an "excellent' ranking this year. Everyone in the district is thrilled about that,” said Diane Breiner, who teaches sixth-grade math, reading and language arts at Columbia Elementary in Kings Local School District in Warren County.

        Columbia teachers set up their first “Proficiency Boot Camp” to provide extra help for sixth-graders. “We Want You!” is the camp slogan.

        Kings's rating as “excellent” on the 2002 report card reflected 2000-01 test results. Of 49 districts in Greater Cincinnati, only 11 received that top rating.

        Five benchmarks kept Kings from reaching the highest rating in the 1999-00 school year. Three of those were in the sixth grade: math, science and reading scores.

        “It was really critical we focus on the sixth grade,” said Mrs. Breiner. “We passed all (sections) last year, but math by barely, and science also is a concern.”

        “We don't want to backslide,” said Mrs. Breiner

        Almost a third of the school's 300 sixth-graders signed on for boot camp. Meetings, which started Feb. 4 and continue through Friday, are held before school. A different subject is covered every day. Twenty-four students signed up for more than one class.

        “It's not necessarily fun and games, but we're not doing "drill and kill' either,” Mrs. Breiner said. “We make it a little more interesting.”

        Diane Guajardo's daughter Lauren signed up for two classes. She has some challenges in math and loves science.

        “We didn't push her to do it,” Mrs. Guajardo said. “She has the drive to want to do well.”

Milford "excellent'

        Milford also obtained the top rating, “excellent,” for the first time on the 2002 report card. There's a big push to keep that rating, said Superintendent John Frye.

        Teachers have worked since August to identify students likely to struggle on the tests, and each school has identified subjects where students are most vulnerable.

        The verdict: math and science.

        “These are areas where one or two students' performances can make a difference,” Mr. Frye said.

        Miami Elementary, a K-4 building, has a Pro Ohio testing pilot program. Students took a “bubble test” in the fall to assess what they know and another test two weeks ago to measure what they've learned.

        “If we see weaknesses individually or as a group,” said Jane Mathys-Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at Miami, “we can address that.”

        Miami also is hosting before-school classes in math, science and citizenship three days a week. Of 56 fourth-graders, 30 voluntarily signed up for the nine-week classes.

        Teachers feel a lot of pressure, Mrs. Mathys-Johnson, said. “I wouldn't say that it's been placed on us by the administrators, but just our own personal pride in wanting to continue that accomplishment and not to let it slip.”

Artsy approach

        Dayton, Ohio, actor Michael Lippert was drafted by Mount Healthy's New Burlington Elementary to integrate the arts into proficiency preparation.

        The district skipped a category, jumping from “academic emergency” to “continuous improvement” in the last report card.

        “There's so much pressure, especially with a district like ours that just moved into "continuous improvement,'” said Lynn Jones, a lead teacher at Mount Healthy. “We want to stay there.”

        New Burlington teachers identified needs ranging from second-graders who needed to work on American history to sixth-graders who have to recognize phases of the moon.

        Mr. Lippert and students wrote a play using rhymes and gestures to help them remember the concepts.

        “We're moving' down a time line,” second-grader Michael Zanders began, using his best Egyptian moves.

        That's the opening line of the second-grade play about an American history. Wearing headbands representing different periods of history, students repeat rhymes about history from George Washington to George Bush.

        “Once it's in their mind and body, they never forget it,” Mr. Lippert said. “It's teachers teaching what they need to teach that addresses the learning styles of different kids.”

        Ms. Jones added: “It gives an outlet to creative kids that aren't necessarily your top honor roll kids.

        “We're not reaching everyone through just the general lecture. There are things that we have to teach that are not exciting.”

Test eliminated

        The stakes are higher this year because the state has eliminated 12th-grade proficiency tests. Those test scores accounted for five of 27 indicators, or standards, on local report cards that measure districts' effectiveness. The number of standards will drop to 22 on the 2003 local report cards.

        School districts such as Cincinnati Public Schools and Mount Healthy made gains on the 2002 report card partly due to those 12th-grade scores. Cincinnati climbed from “academic emergency” to “academic watch,” while Mount Healthy left behind its “academic emergency” ranking.

        “We know four of our indicators were the 12th-grade test,” said David Horine, Mount Healthy superintendent. “We could improve a little bit in every area and possibly fall back into "academic watch.' There are other districts in that same situation.”

        The work is not done, said Kathleen Ware, associate superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, just because the district is out of “academic emergency.” “The pressure is the same. We realize we have a lot of progress to make.”

Areas of improvement

        Statewide, the most improvement in the 2002 local report cards occurred at the ninth and 12th grades, said Patti Grey, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education. ""Without the 12th-grade standards, that certainly can affect the designation next year for schools.”

        While no money is at stake, districts pride themselves on their reputations as “excellent” or “effective” districts. Districts in “academic emergency,” “academic watch” and “continuous improvement” must create continuous improvement plans.

        In addition, the state makes a site visit to “academic emergency” districts. Districts that continue to show no improvement or fall further behind are in danger of being taken over by the state. The three Greater Cincinnati schools that were in “academic emergency” — Cincinnati, Mount Healthy and Butler County's New Miami Local — moved out of that category on the 2002 local report card.

        So, like its counterparts, Cincinnati Public is focused on results.

        It has narrowed in on literacy. Summer school is mandatory for second- and third-graders with reading difficulties as well as some first-graders who fall behind.

        Classroom lessons are supplemented with tutoring, after-school programs and Saturday school.


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