Teaching For The Test

JONESBORO - Now more than ever, "testing" drives instruction in the classroom.  No where could be more evident than in a few Region 8 school districts where standardized testing time has come. And through the coming weeks stress will kick into high gear for students and teachers throughout Region 8.

For many students it starts with a national test called "The Iowa Basic Skills" and later this spring, the "Arkansas Benchmark Exams."  We all know that a lot is at stake when students are tested: Bragging rights if a school does well or worst case scenario - a label of "Academic Distress" for schools whose students do poorly at test time.

Pressure not only comes from the government but also from the students families.  Parents everywhere these days criticize schools and teachers for not allowing students the chance to learn outside of a rigid framework of testing.  However, the schools have little choice and must allow testing to take front and center stage.

Shakyra Anderson is an excellent student and scores very well on tests.  However, the Federal Government targets the Jonesboro school district for having groups of African-American, low-income and Special Education students who aren't measuring up.

Kim Wilbanks, Jonesboro Public Schools, Assistant Superintendent Elementary said "At the federal level, they measure subgroups, so one of the reasons the Jonesboro school district has subgroups that are not scoring at the level that is expected is because as a larger district, we have more students that are in those subgroups."

The Federal Law "No Child Left Behind" is what pushes districts like Jonesboro to improve.  If they don't make adequate yearly progress by raising achievement levels, they're identified as in "need of improvement" and Sandy Puryear, Jonesboro Administration, comminuted "This district is not in academic distress."

Until now there has been little available to help teachers and students along in preparation for the Benchmark exams, and schools are turning to sources outside of their Co-Ops for help. One such establishment is the Learning Institute in Hot Springs.  The Learning Institute has developed a new system of testing, called Chunk Testing, that will help teachers align their curriculum to what the students have learned and need to learn for the Benchmark.  Developed by UofA doctorial candidate, Joel Rush, Chunk Testing is a simple 20 question test given in intervals through out the year to better understand what the students are comprehending.

Joel Rush, The Learning Institute, stated "You have a lot of folks at the state level that say you should be teaching to the test. We actually think it's the exact opposite. We think you should set your curriculum. Know what you want your kids to be able to do and then turn around and test those skills."

Vicki Kreis, Philadelphia 4th Grade Teacher, said "What this does is this maps out what we're going to teach and does assessments 4 to 6 weeks or something like that. So it let's us see a little more often how our kids are doing..rather than just four times a year, or three times before we take the Benchmark."

Sandy Puryear, Jonesboro School Administration commented "We run them off. Teachers administer them. They us a bubble sheet similar to what they use on the Arkansas Benchmark. We scan them immediately and the teachers get immediate feedback, which we've been real pleased with."

Jonesboro is one of eight districts in Region 8 utilizing the learning institute.  The tests are designed specifically for each district.  Shari Coston is a math curriculum specialist with 40 years of education experience and helps choose the questions for each Chunk test.  She also works with the teachers of each district to make sure the test is specifically targeting the individual schools students. Teacher like Rusty Young an 8th Grade Algebra Teacher are working with Coston on the test development.  Young said, "Rusty Young, 8th Grade Algebra Teacher: We will look at our curriculum, decide what part of the curriculum we're going to teach, at the beginning of the year, do a curriculum map all the way through the school year."

Interestingly enough while working with the teacher the Learning Institute started to break down curriculum into chunks or segments for testing and found that some textbooks didn't even address concepts that students would find on the Benchmark exam.

Kim Wilbanks, Jonesboro Public Schools, Assistant Superintendent Elementary, said "When I was in school, the textbook drove instruction... so you didn't really have a set of standards that was universal across the entire state of Arkansas. You adopted a textbook. You followed that textbook. Usually you started at the beginning and you went to the end."

But coordinating the textbooks to the exam is not the only change the Learning Institute wants to implement.  Generally standardized test scores are not figured into a student's grade, but the Learning Institute says a students's Chunk test score should count.

Vicki Kreis said, "If my grade book says that they have A's in everything and Benchmark says they don't have A's, I'm not giving you an accurate picture of how your child is doing and that's not a good thing."

Steve Singleton, JPS Superintendent, stated "One of the things we're hearing out in the schools is that the General Assembly is looking at the possibility of using a formative assessment similar to the Learning Institute that we're involved in."

Some school Co-Ops have developed their own version of testing like the Learning Institute, and call it "Target Testing."  And with the No Child Left Behind Act up for reauthorization in congress, it's not certain what the future holds.  While no one believes there will be less testing just possible changes in it's implantation.

But has the Chunk testing had an impact on Jonesboro Schools? Sandy Puryear, JPS Administration says, "You're going to find on paper it looked really good...but when you started looking at those pacing guide and trying to teach all those skills."  The proof is going to be in the numbers and will ultimately come down to how well the students score on the Arkansas Benchmark test and end of course exams.

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