Thursday, April 26, 2012

Testing pile-up this week tests teachers, students

Texas schools are on total lock-down. What a mess. -Patricia By Laura Heinauer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Wednesday, April 25, 2012 With strict rules about test security, interruptions and campus access, the days given over to standardized academic testing in Texas are always a little different from the usual routine. But this year and next, as schools across the state transition from the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam to the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, high schools will have more of these different days than in the past to accommodate both exams. Nearly all week, high school sophomores and juniors are taking the TAKS, which 11th-graders need to pass before they can graduate. Freshmen, who are going to be taking the STAAR the second week of May, are still expected to come to school, but they must be kept separate to avoid disturbing the upperclassmen. Seniors, meanwhile, are on a shortened schedule this week — and some, according to Facebook posts, have been watching quite a few movies. Students in elementary and middle schools are also taking tests this week. Because each district can set their own schedules for the May STAAR exams, the number of additional days devoted to standardized testing at high schools will vary but no doubt will be higher this year than last. Debbie Sommer, the Leander school district's director of testing and accountability, said the challenge this year is more for the testing coordinators and campus administrators than it is for the students who, in many cases, still have to take the same number of tests. "The challenge is to have enough staff to provide the instruction to those students who are not testing and to be test administrators to those who are," she said. "We're really feeling the strain on that." At McCallum High School in North Central Austin, Principal Mike Garrison said that although things are different this week, he is hoping to squeeze in as much instructional time as possible. The school has been split in two, he said, with the 10th- and 11th-graders at one end of the building and the rest of the students elsewhere. The bells have been turned off, and the ninth-graders are put into review classes, based on where they will be testing, for their upcoming math, science and social studies end-of-course exams. The review sessions will last 80 minutes each. "The teachers felt it was really important that the kids not just sit around — that they get instruction and get ready for the end-of-course exam," Garrison said. The seniors at most area schools don't have to come in until the afternoon, which is when many schools will take attendance. Attendance is still important because the money that the school receives from the state is dependent on it. In addition to test preparation, the ninth- and 12th-graders at McCallum are also completing their FitnessGram Testing, another state-mandated test that measures physical fitness levels of students in grades 3 to 12. "I don't think the Legislature realizes sometimes the impact they are having when they have us do all of this testing," Garrison said. The extra testing this year comes as districts across the state, including Austin, are passing resolutions expressing opposition to the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing. Some parents have even decided to opt out of testing this week. "We're not sure how many parents kept their kids home this week. Parents are afraid of ending up on the wrong side of the school if they complain, so they don't say anything," said Edythe Chamness, founder of Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests. She kept her two elementary-age students out of school this week. Controversies this spring over whether standardized testing should be part of a student's grade and whether it has become a "perversion," as stated by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott, have added fuel to the fire. "The fact that this resolution has been sweeping the school boards across the state and has now gone national is not an accident," said Mike Corwin, a parent of a kindergarten student in the Austin school district. "There's a debate about the future of public education that's really reached a tipping point around these tests and how they are taking away from a much more rounded educational experience." Though the extra testing days have been an adjustment for staff, Sommer said most of the teachers are very happy with the STAAR overall, which is timed so it lasts only four hours — the TAKS was untimed — and is supposed to be more rigorous and grade-based than its predecessor. Plus, she said, having to deal with the TAKS and the STAAR could be good practice for the future. Under TAKS, there were about 30 testing days each year; under STAAR there will be 45, and high schools, much like their elementary and middle school counterparts, need to get used to having some students on campus who are taking tests and others who are not, she said. "We've talked about how we need to shift that paradigm, because under STAAR, it's going to happen more frequently," Sommer said.

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