Schools prep students for tests with more tests

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    (AP)-Q: What is the best way to help students pass standardized tests? (A) Give them more tests for practice. (B) Use high-tech new ways to identify students in need of extra help. (C) Invite them to after-school sessions to sharpen their skills. Pencils down. School officials across New Jersey, while acknowledging the answer is hardly as easy as ABC, are trying all of these methods. Their goal is to make sure scores improve on state exams being given this month to students in third, fourth, eighth and 11th grades. Some education experts fear that the growing emphasis on getting ready for standardized tests teaches students how to give the required answers, but takes some of the flexibility out of teaching and reduces emphasis on skills not necessarily measured by tests. Under the federal No Child Left Behind education reform law of 2002, state test scores are more important than ever. If a high percentage of students fail in three consecutive years, a school could lose federal money or be taken over by the state. The percentage of students who must pass each test to avoid penalties increases every year until 2014, when all students must pass. Schools are ramping up efforts to figure out which students are on the border between passing and failing and to get those students extra help. ``We can identify every kid that should pass the test now,'' said Annette Knox, the school superintendent in Camden, a district that administers its own standardized tests to measure the progress of students every six weeks. ``It gives us the kind of cutting-edge information that we need in the district.'' Even if the extra tests and other score-improving measures help raise test scores, the debate over whether ``teaching to the test'' is a good idea will not go away. ``Is the goal to have students who can answer a particular kind of question or is the goal something else?'' asked Jason Klugman, an administrator at Princeton University's Program in Teacher Preparation. If the extra tests are used to teach students both facts and critical thinking skills _ and not just how to answer exam questions _ they can help teachers, Klugman said. Denise Cardinal, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, a union for school employees, said that in the era of stiff consequences for poor test scores, schools are taking an approach to standardized tests that may run counter to helping students develop those higher-order thinking skills. ``It's not about learning as much as it is about getting that magic number so they can get their funding,'' she said. Cardinal said some schools waste valuable classroom time by teaching test-taking techniques: practicing how to sharpen a pencil, or fill answer sheet ovals, for example. Some state educators say that because the state's tests require analysis and not just rote memorization, teaching with the test in mind is sound education. ``If you're teaching to the test and the thought behind the test you're using is good,'' said Charles Tortorella, the principal at Hoboken's Wallace Primary School. ``I see that as a positive.'' Last fall, schools in Camden started giving preparatory tests that resemble the state exams. Superintendent Knox said that is important because sometimes students do poorly because they are not used to testing formats. New Jersey's state tests involve more than multiple-choice questions. Instead, many of the answers must be written out and pupils must show their work on math problems. Answers and scores from the prep tests are stored in a database. When a student misses a question, the computer can specify a page of a textbook, a computer game or specific educational materials that can help. Leslie Sadler, a third-grade teacher at Bonsall School in a tough Camden neighborhood known as Pollacktown, said that last time her students took the district's test, a lot of them missed questions about the geometry concepts of lines, line segments and rays. Her next batch of lesson plans included an intensive review of those geometry topics. Even school districts where students typically do well on state exams are seeing a need for more test preparation. Affluent Moorestown, a Burlington County community where the schools are the pride of the town, is trying out a new test this year, given three times a year to students in certain grades. ``Data is good if you can do something with it,'' said Jane LaMarra, the administrator in Moorestown in charge of overseeing the tests. In Gloucester Township, eighth-graders _ especially those seen as being in danger of failing the state's Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment _ were invited to the Saturday morning test prep sessions. In Hoboken's Wallace School, third- and fourth-grade teachers hold tutoring sessions before or after school or on Saturdays, leading up to the big state tests in March. And Principal Tortorella visits fourth-grade classes in the weeks leading up to the tests for extra lunchtime review sessions. Nancy Decker, an assistant superintendent in Gloucester Township, said all the growing amounts of test preparation is not without a cost. ``Your teachers will tell you that some of the more cumulative activities, some of the projects and fun kind of stuff have to go by the wayside,'' she said.