District hopes online puts it ahead
Tests measuring progress for No Child Left Behind under way this week
On Monday, local students plunged into their first round of this year's state assessment tests.
This year, De Soto USD 232 abandoned pencils and fill-in-the-bubble paper forms for online testing, a first for the district. Schools are using technology and a few other tricks to make the high-stakes testing season easier on students and, hopefully, more rewarding for the district's report card.
Using laptop computers is second-nature for Lexington Trails Middle School students, said Principal Mark Schmidt, but taking a standardized test online isn't.
"Kids are comfortable with laptop computers," Schmidt said. "But it's a different format than what they've been used to."
For that reason, Schmidt said his students took several online practice tests provided by the state to get familiar with navigating the new venue.
De Soto superintendent Sharon Zoellner said Tuesday she'd heard from building principals that the first few days of tech-assisted testing were going smoothly; the students seemed to be engaged and paying close attention to their work.
A few minor glitches were quickly overcome with help from Kansas University's Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, the organization charged with technical support for the district's assessments, she said.
Lexington Trails eighth-graders are taking reading exams this week, and seventh-graders are testing for science. The social studies test will be administered to sixth- and eighth-graders the first week in April, and seventh-graders will start math tests at the end of this month.
Starside Elementary School students also began fourth-grade math and fifth-grade reading tests scheduled this week.
"We work really hard not to put a lot of pressure on the students," Zoellner said. "But we do help them understand that it's important."
Motivating students to do their best on a test that doesn't affect their own class grade can be challenging.
"The tests are high-stakes, but they're high-stakes to the school, not the kids," Schmidt said.
Pitching the test as a personal or team challenge is one possible angle of attack. Schmidt said LTMS tried to remind students that scoring well was a good way to represent themselves and their school.
"We're challenging the kids to do their best to exceed where they scored the previous time, really trying to get them excited about doing well," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said Lexington Trails offered some incentives and rewards for individuals who scored well. Students whose scores indicate they need extra help in a core subject area may be instructed to swap one elective, for example, for a class that offers enrichment in that subject.
"Maybe the kids that normally would have drawn a picture in the multiple choice questions may now take it a little more seriously," he said.
Schmidt said he tried to steer away from incentives such as test-day snacks, which ended up more like a distraction from a regular school day than a focus-enhancer.
Annual improvement on state assessment tests is mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act.
Each year, every school must make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, by having a state-set percentage of students score at proficient or above in math and reading. The target percentage grows higher each year, aiming toward the act's ultimate goal -- having 100 percent of students proficient in the subjects by the year 2014.
"In the seven years I've been principal here, the tone has become increasingly more serious, and the stakes have really risen," Schmidt said.
Schmidt was doubtful that achieving 100-percent proficiency was attainable for most schools.
"Eventually I think that most school districts are going to have a hard time making adequate yearly progress once the numbers really get up there," he said. "It's going to be tougher and tougher to make those high standards."
Zoellner said as stakes went up, so did the district's attention to state assessments.
"The bar does get higher every year, and we continue to work to help our students achieve at that next-highest level," she said. "We have consciously made it more poignant in the last few years."
The superintendent said federal mandates had expanded attention beyond just teaching students to performing as a district, too.
"Student learning is the number one priority in our district, and we ask them to always do their best," she said. "The parameters of No Child Left Behind have put that more in focus for us as a district."