Thursday, April 8, 2004

Stressed students prepare

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Matt Cheeks (second from left) a Boone County High School senior, works with (from left) Alisha Scroggins, Soichiro Hattori and Abby Kohake , fourth-graders at Yealey Elementary School, Florence, on an "open response" letter to help them prepare for upcoming state proficiency tests.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY
Testing season has nearly arrived in Kentucky, and that means two things: Teachers are going all-out to help students prepare, and students are bracing themselves for stress.

"You get pretty nervous," says 9-year-old Abby Kohake, a fourth-grader at Yealey Elementary School in Florence.

"You feel like all the teachers are, like, counting on you," says classmate Alisha Scroggins, 9.

"They want us to get good scores so we can go on to fifth grade," says Soichiro Hattori, 10.

Actually, the annual testing has nothing to do with whether students get promoted to the next grade. But it's no surprise that many have gotten that idea, because the stakes are high.

In Kentucky, each school's overall results are used by parents, superintendents and state officials to judge how well teachers and principals are doing. And now, under the No Child Left Behind Act, some schools with low scores will have to offer students the option of transferring.

Kentucky's testing period begins April 26 and ends May 21, with schools choosing various two-week periods within that time frame. Children usually take the tests over four or five days.

To get them motivated before the big week, some schools are holding pep rallies or pizza parties. Kelly Elementary, the highest-scoring school in Boone County, will invite all students to sleep overnight at school on April 16, with teachers slipping review sessions into the party. Other elementaries will give away pencils with slogans like, "Sharpen Up for CATS," a reference to the tests' formal name, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System.

At the high school level, the challenge is getting students to care. Teenagers know they won't be held personally accountable for their scores, so some lack motivation.

Next month, for the second year in a row, Campbell County High School will hold a pep rally to combat apathy. Students who scored well in the previous year will draw for prizes.

Students who score in the "proficient" or "distinguished" categories will earn an exemption from midterm exams the following December.

"I think the exemptions have worked wonderfully," math teacher Pat Sears says. The school can provide the incentive without spending any money, yet for students, it's a valuable award, she says.

Sears works test review into her regular classroom day. Other teachers devise special programs to help students prepare for CATS, which generally features a mix of multiple-choice and short-answer questions.

At Yealey Elementary School, for instance, teacher Barbara Lyons this year launched a collaboration with Kelly Read, an English teacher at Boone County High School. Read's students visited Yealey several times to help fourth-graders practice writing short essays like the ones they will see on the test.

On a recent afternoon, groups of high-school and elementary students huddled over pieces of notebook paper, crafting persuasive arguments for and against the assigned topic: school dress codes.

Eleventh-grader Jennifer Ross led a lively discussion at one table.

"We could say that many kids have their own style. Like, what?" she asked.

"Gecko Hawaii and Nike," offered Connor Moulton, 10.

"My sister likes Weather Vane and Aeropostale," said Ajay Siva, 9.

"And Abercrombie & Fitch," added December Voyles, 9.

Afterward, Yealey students said they got a lot out of the practice, including techniques for brainstorming their main points before they start writing.

Across Northern Kentucky, teachers are always looking for new approaches to test review.

Next week, for the first time, fourth-graders at Erpenbeck Elementary School will take a field trip to the Florence Skatepark. Taking advantage of the park's many ramps, teachers will set up demonstrations that reinforce science concepts like Newton's Laws of Motion.

The field trip was inspired by the upcoming tests, fourth-grade teacher Rusty Scott says, but the approach also has long-term benefits.

"Any time you can do hands-on activities, kids will remember it longer, and they will actually truly learn it," Scott says.


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