Fall is time to get ready for state standardized exams
Faces of the Future
The Gazette offers a nine-month series about local education in the 21st century. Gazette reporter Frank Schultz will spend time in Amanda Werner's fifth-grade classroom at Janesville's Adams Elementary School throughout the school year and write about the challenges and changes of a modern classroom.
Click here to read earlier installments in the Faces of the Future series.
Types of tests
Ask about testing in the Janesville School District, and you’ll get alphabet soup for an answer. Here’s an explainer:
CBAs—Curriculum-Based Assessments are tests developed by teachers for language, reading, math, science, social studies, music, art and physical education. They are based on learning standards and are designed to tell teachers what students know and don’t know. Grades 3-5 at Adams Elementary School took CBAs in September.
MAP—The Measures of Academic Progress is a purchased test, taken on computer, which gives teachers immediate feedback on how well students are doing in language, reading and math. The test adjusts to a student’s answers. The difficulty of each question is based on how well the student has answered previous questions. As the student answers correctly, the questions become more difficult. If the student answers incorrectly, the questions become easier.
At Adams Elementary School, all students take the MAP in the spring. Second grade also takes it in the fall.
WKCE—The state’s standardized tests. Reading and math are tested in grades 3-8 and 10. Language, science and social studies are tested in grades 3, 8 and 10. Tests are taken in the fall. Results are released in the spring. The state is working to revamp its testing system.
Educators analyze the results of all these tests to pinpoint areas of weakness in specific students and apply that knowledge to lesson plans throughout the year. Test results from fourth grade and early in fifth grade led teachers to spend more time teaching the following skills, which had proved troublesome to many Adams fifth-graders:
-- Using context clues to determine word meaning, especially with multiple-meaning words.
-- Identifying the main idea or theme.
-- Question-and-answer relationships.
-- Identifying the author’s purpose.
-- Writing complete and detailed responses.
-- Story problems.
-- Algebraic relationships.
-- Measurement—converting to metric, units of measurement, elapsed time, measuring to the nearest unit.
-- Making change with money.
How they're doing
The Gazette has asked teacher Amanda Werner for monthly updates on how her kids are doing in terms of behavior and what they are learning. This is meant to be a sampling, not an exhaustive report. Here’s the latest:
“Not much to report on the behavior front again this month. Only four students stayed in for closed lunch the entire month. Our main behavior issues continue to be responsibility for turning in work not completed in class and some chattiness. This is a very well-behaved group!”
Tallies given: 107. Tallies are marks for negative behavior that are logged in a student’s assignment notebook
Reward tickets issued: about 400 for positive actions and giving exceptional answers in class.
-- Social studies—“Social studies, reading and language learning standards were combined in our exploration of Native American tribe histories.
“We read historical fiction stories, researched facts and wrote essays about how Native American cultures were influenced by their environments as well as what impact European exploration had on Native American lifestyles.
-- Reading and Language arts—“Learning goals were combined with a focus on Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam preparation. We read a variety of shorter texts, analyzing elements of text structure in nonfiction and fiction writing. Based on our reading, the students explored, planned and practiced writing responses to prompts that would likely be included in a standardized test format.”
-- Math—“We began indepth discoveries with angles and shapes through hands-on exploration. We continued to review coordinate-grid skills, working with different types of graphs and fractions in preparation for state testing. Extended learning with these topics will take place in the second trimester.”
-- Science—“We are concluding our physical science investigations with heat energy and phases of matter by looking closely at the water cycle from a global and personal perspective.”
JANESVILLE “When I say ‘line up,’ you say ‘decimals.’ “Line up!”
Teacher Amanda Werner was making a point about decimal points to her fifth-graders earlier this month: When adding or subtracting numbers with decimals, the decimal points need to line up underneath each other.
Failing to do so was one of the common errors that students had made on previous tests, and Werner wanted to make sure the mistakes didn’t recur when they took the state standardized tests, the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exams.
Werner’s students took the WKCEs this month, soon after the scene described above. They were among students across the state in grades 3-8 and 10 who took the state tests this fall. Results will be revealed next spring.
At stake is each school’s rating in a new state “report card.” Schools strive to be rated highly. They don’t want to be labeled as failures.
Adams Elementary School did OK in the first round of state report cards issued this fall, which were based on 2011 tests, but there’s room for improvement , and every year is a new challenge.
The state is in the midst of transforming its testing system, and Gov. Scott Walker recently signaled he is eyeing models such as those in Florida and Pennsylvania, in which test results become even more important in showing which schools, administrators and teachers are failing and which are succeeding.
Tests are not just for accountability, however. Educators use them to find out what went wrong so they can correct problems in future tests.
Janesville teachers and principals, like most of their peers across the state, analyze answers to test questions to find weaknesses. As teachers prepare students for the next year’s tests, they re-teach the weak areas. That’s what went on in Werner’s class and classes across the district this month.
Test prep dominated the week leading up to the tests.
School staffs analyze last year’s state tests but also use a computer test called Measures of Academic Progress and tests that teachers write called curriculum-based assessments.
It’s a different world from the old days, when tests were few and far between and preparation for them was minimal. The federal No Child Left Behind law put testing at the top of every public school’s agenda.
Not only is the overall average test performance a big deal, but schools are expected to educate poor students, minority students and students with disabilities to the same standards as everyone else. Failure to meet the standards in just one area meant a school was labeled “in need of improvement.” Continued failure could mean sanctions. That has never happened in Janesville.
The state of Wisconsin recently got a federal waiver to try a different system, but the basic demand that students succeed on tests has not changed.
How to take a test
Teachers talk to students about their test weaknesses, drill them in those skills and even coach them in test-taking strategies. Werner’s decimal cheer was part of a short lesson followed by a quiz that looked like what students would see on the state test. “Does anyone want to look over their test?” Werner said as students began to complete it. “Remember what I said about silly little errors on the tests?”
Another strategy is to look for what teachers call “distracter answers.”
In multiple-choice sections, there might be one or two answers that seem to be correct at first glance, but those are there to distract, Werner reminded the kids several times in the week leading up to the tests.
Werner showed the students examples so they could practice looking for the best answer, not the one that is partially correct or seems correct at first glance.
Critics question all the test prep, but Kim Ehrhardt, the school district’s director of instruction, said even test-taking strategies have value.
“It’s really about developing good critical reading skills. We tell them the distracters are there on purpose to make sure you are very deliberate readers,” Ehrhardt said.
Another weakness that Werner and the students worked on was the written answers on the math tests. Students are asked to explain how they got their answers.
“I did it in my head” is not enough, Werner told them. “ … Remember my advice to you was that you should explain it to someone who doesn’t know how to do it.”
To prepare for the reading test, students read a story, and Werner took them through the steps of an analysis. Then students practiced writing mini-essays to questions about the story.
Use details in the story to support your answer, Werner told them. Use words from the question to introduce your answer. The best answers will be ones that include students’ interpretations of the story that go beyond the text.
The daily grind
Werner said some of the skills she taught weren’t scheduled to be taught until later in the year, but they were on the test. That’s one more example of how things change the week before the test. But test-prep week is not the only time when tests are on teachers’ minds.
“We do not look at any single period of our year as WKCE preparation,” said Werner’s principal, Sally Parks, referring to the state tests. “Instead, we focus on a year of good instruction and continuous learning that leads to good WKCE scores.”
Teachers continue to use test data to determine students’ needs and to guide their teaching all year, both for the class and for individual students, Parks said in an email.
A glance at the daily class schedule shows students’ needs, as determined by the educators, include big helpings of math and reading.
All year long, Werner’s students have math from 7:45 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. every day. First there’s a quick math warm-up, then Response to Intervention math, which focuses on shoring up weaknesses. That is followed by regular math class.
Reading takes up another 2 1/2 hours each day. Reading and math combined take up more than 70 percent of students’ weekly class time. Art, music, social studies, science, language and phy ed fit into the remaining time.
Kids get 60 minutes of music each week, 80 minutes for art, 90 minutes for phy ed. Social studies and science share 180 minutes.
Perhaps not coincidentally, reading and math are what students are tested on every year from third through eighth grade.
Social studies and science also are tested, but only in third, eighth and 10th grades.
“Wow, wow,” said a former Adams teacher when told of the time spent on reading and math.
Jaci Gruber, a third-grade teacher at Adams from 1997 to 2005, remembers one hour a day for math and a lot less state testing.
“With increased highstakes testing, more pressure was put on math and reading, but I suspect when social studies and science scores dip, there’ll be increased pres- sure on (those subjects) as well,” said longtime Adams Principal Kitty Grant, who retired in 2011.
Grant said she saw increasing pressure on teachers and principals to improve test scores during her last five years.
Werner said science and social studies have become a bigger part of the reading curriculum to make up for the lack of classes dedicated solely to them.
Janesville tests scores in social studies and science are fine, Ehrhardt said.
“The bottom line is, you won’t do well in social studies and science if you have some reading deficits,” Ehrhardt said. “I want kids to be well fortified in those areas so that as they move up in the grades, they can handle the content.”
Critics, however, say the focus on testing has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and students who are less well rounded.
Rally for tests
“In addition to good instruction throughout the year, we make sure to communicate with families about testing dates, so they can be sure students have a healthy breakfast and a good night of sleep,” Principal Parks said. “We also have a WKCE Pep Rally to celebrate past successes and get students excited to do their best on the upcoming test.”
Ehrhardt said the rallies help make sure students are focused and serious about learning.
The events are a bit like homecoming pep rallies, Ehrhardt said.
“You want to get everyone’s enthusiasm up because this is an important marker,” he said.
Test rallies are held routinely in elementary schools. At Adams, most of the fifthgrade rally was a panel discussion. Five high school students spent the afternoon talking to students about the importance of doing well on the test and in school in general.
“If you start slacking off now, it’s not looking too good for high school,” high-schooler Erika Teubert told the kids.
Adams’ academic learning coach, Rob Conner, ran the rally by grade level.
“The WKCE is a very important test we take because we want to see how much you’ve learned since you’ve been here in school,” Connor said. “It also tells us things we still might need to do as teachers.”
The high school students offered advice that the students had heard before.
“Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. It really, really helps,” Teubert said.
“If you have time, check your answers,” Karleen Wojczak said.
“Breakfast helps a lot,” Cydney Hogans added.
The rally ended with a music video made by another Wisconsin school that encouraged students to do well on their tests.
“Remember, all we’re asking you to do is your very best,” Connor said at the end.
The students got an extra recess after the rally, reminiscent of a coach giving the team time to blow off steam before the big game. The fifth-graders embraced the opportunity.
On the playground, the fifth-graders said they are used to the test-prep week by now and would be glad when it’s over.
“It is a big deal, but they try to make it more than it is,” Payton Kahl said.
“They tell you not to be stressed out, but they make it all so stressful, but it’s not that bad,” Tamara Troemel said. “Once you start, it’s, like, easy. … When you’re done and you see how good you did, you feel good about yourself.”
Back in the classroom, Werner discussed the tests with the students. What if students don’t do their best? she asked.
“Sometimes, the teachers put it all on themselves, like they didn’t teach you well enough,” Tamara said.
“Yes!” Werner responded. “I take this very seriously. Your success is my success, and (if you succeed), that makes me feel like I’ve done a good job.”
That chat was an introduction to more test-taking tips. By the end, students were polite but fidgety.
Too much testing?
Testing as it’s done in Wisconsin and most other states has critics. Tests are too frequent, and too much importance is given to test data, said Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and a founding editor of the magazine Rethinking Schools.
“We’re the most tested country in the industrial world,” Peterson said.
Peterson, with 30 years of elementary teaching under his belt, said school districts are training teachers too much about analyzing test data and not enough about how to improve their teaching.
“We hear this is data driven, data driven, data driven. My alternative: It should be child driven but data informed, looking out for the whole child,” Peterson said. “It should have children at center. It shouldn’t have numbers at the center.
“I’m not against tests. I’m against being obsessed by tests,” Peterson said.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing takes a similar stand. It advocates for a system of holding schools accountable by testing less and testing differently.
The organization’s stands, which can be found at FairTest.org , call for testing only once in elementary school, once in middle and once high school. It says schools also should be held accountable through evaluations of students’ actual work on essays, projects and experiments, and schools should undergo an evaluation by an outside group once every four or five years.
Told of the math- and reading-heavy fifth-grade class schedule at Adams School, Peterson was not pleased.
“That’s a huge problem, and I hope parents will become aware of it so they stand up and say, ‘no, we should educate the whole child,’” Peterson said.
“Are we making schools so test-focused that it’s not fun anymore?” Peterson said.
Fun, he said, is needed so kids want to read and be curious and want to learn.