Thursday, May 6, 2004

Campbell High's antics have a serious purpose

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Campbell County High School Assistant Principal Elmer Thomas (left), math teacher Shelly Hegyi (center) and associate principal Leah Jefferson (right) run the "four-legged" race during a pep rally to enthuse students about next week's CATS tests.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY
ALEXANDRIA - Oh, what a school won't do for better test scores.

Take Campbell County High. On Wednesday, students and staff risked deep humiliation to run four-legged races and put on a riotous re-creation of American Idol. Their purpose: to lift spirits before next week's round of state testing.

"Oh, my God," said junior Alicia Sanders, convulsing with laughter at the sight of an assistant principal in wig and cheerleading uniform.

Alicia and 1,300 classmates hooted and hollered from the bleachers as the Idol segment began.

Teachers shakily performed a cheer. Five teenage boys wore skirts and wigs for a falsetto rendition of "My Guy" by Mary Wells. Rock bands rocked out. Fake bouncers controlled the crowd.

And baseball coach Wayne Herringer, adopting a bad British accent, lobbed insults just like Simon Cowell.

The shenanigans were all part of the school's strategy to coax better performance from students.

For three days next week, Campbell County High will administer the state tests known as CATS, for Commonwealth Accountability Testing System.

The results of these exams make or break the reputations of Kentucky schools. But students are not held personally accountable for their scores, which is especially worrisome at the high-school level.

"What in the world do high-school seniors have to gain from doing well on these tests? Right now, very little," said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

That's why the state board is looking at ways to increase the stakes, she said. Possibilities include printing CATS scores on high-school transcripts or making them part of eligibility for state scholarships.

Three years ago, Campbell County High formed its own committee to brainstorm solutions. One result: A raft of incentives that cost the school nothing but mean a lot to students.

Those who score well on CATS tests earn exemptions from the following year's final exams. Those who make a good-faith effort next week - regardless of their ultimate scores - will be treated to a day at the movies.

And then there's the pep rally, at which students were reminded of the incentives.

"This all seems strange for someone who's been around 32 years teaching," said math instructor Donn Manker as rock music blared from the gym. "But they put so much pressure on from the state. You've got to have some way for kids to take it seriously."

The incentives have made a difference, Manker said.

At the end of each segment of the test, students are asked to rate how hard they tried. Last year, 64 percent of Campbell County juniors said they tried "very hard" on the math portion, for example, compared to 57 percent the year before

Student effort is inching up. So, too, are the school's overall scores.

In 2000, Campbell County High's overall score was 63.1. Last year, it improved to 72.9. If next week's scores go up by just four-tenths of a percentage point, the school will meet its state-established goal.

Stunts like the American Idol rally can only help, students say.

"This really opens kids up," said senior Ronnie Young, who donned a wig, tight sweater and skirt for the "My Guy" act.

The effort put forth by teachers - the cheerleading outfits, the hair mousse, the bad British accents - will make an impact, he predicted.

"I guarantee you, at least some of these kids are thinking, 'If they 're going to that much trouble, it must be important,' " Young said.


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