Schools try to ease stress of state test
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
By Beverly Creamer
Beginning this week, 100,000 Hawai'i public school students will begin taking the Hawai'i State Assessment exam, which carries major ramifications not only for the students, but also for their teachers, their schools and the state in meeting federal mandates.
School officials plan a variety of incentives to create success through 10 days of tests — including academic pep rallies, free breakfast to get kids to school on time, soothing music beforehand or even a snack of muffins and juice on the lanai.
"For students to do well, it's not just the academic learning throughout the year, it's the environment you set immediately before testing and even during testing that has a big impact," said Pat Ishimaru, testing specialist with the Test Development section of the Department of Education.
For the first time, the statewide test results will incorporate scores from students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10, the most ever. The assessment determines whether schools are making sufficient yearly progress in testing or whether they'll join the 136 schools under sanctions as part of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The law mandates that every school must demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" until 2014, when all students are expected to meet proficiency in core subjects. Schools that fail to make the standards face a progressive level of sanction, culminating in the possible takeover of low-performing schools by the state.
At the same time, the DOE has tightened testing security to prevent problems such as the one that happened last year, when officials stopped testing at Wai'anae Intermediate because test items on review sheets were very close to items on the actual test.
But DOE officials are advising schools not to let students feel the pressure.
In fact, they want every child to come to school with a healthy breakfast, a good night's sleep and a positive can-do attitude.
"You don't want students stressed out, so if you set a nice tone like having healthy snacks, it's telling students this is a good experience — that we're going to show what we've learned so we want to be at our best," Ishimaru said.
RALLIES AND FREE FOOD
At Dole Middle School, officials are pulling out all the stops in hopes of meeting the goal of having 28 percent of students meet proficiency levels in math and 44 percent in reading.
And they'll do that with spirit today in a school-wide pep rally for the school's 768 students with teachers and students rapping and cheering about how the kids are going to "ace" the tests.
"Who tries their best?" the sixth-graders will holler, starting a cheer they've been practicing:
"Sixth-graders try their best
"And when sixth-graders try their best
"They ace the HSA test!"
"It's going to be a fun thing just to get the kids ready, to pep them up," said vice principal Agenhart Ellis. "They've been grinding real hard. We've been giving them practice tests to improve. But we wanted them to be on a happier note to get them ready."
At Kahalu'u Elementary, students will be coming in for a free breakfast tomorrow morning, provided by the school Ohana, or PTA, said principal Amy Arakaki. Free breakfast on test mornings helped last year when the small country school made Adequate Yearly Progress after failure in the past.
"Research has shown when children eat breakfast they can focus on learning," Arakaki said. "If they're hungry, they can't focus."
Last year it also made the difference in getting every child to school on time. A year earlier there was a 15 percent tardy rate that dropped to zero for all 10 testing days last year.
"The beautiful part is the children get so excited because their parents love them so much and want them to do so well that they're paying for everyone's breakfast," Arakaki said.
Along with free breakfast on the first test morning, Kahalu'u Elementary divides its large classes in half to minimize crowding and distractions in the testing classrooms, and tests only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
"Most children come to school tired on Monday and Friday," Arakaki said. "When we look at the data, that's when we also have the most absences. Knowing that, we have to make it work for us because we want the children to perform their best."
Michelle Heaviside, whose daughter has taken the state assessment exam for the last four years at Kahalu'u, says those kinds of preparations make a difference.
"We got up earlier, we talked about the testing before class and even after school, and I talked to her about reviewing her answers and always going back and checking and reading it over slowly and clearly before turning it in," said Heaviside, Kahalu'u Elementary's parent facilitator. "It seemed to help her."
Ishimaru, the DOE's test specialist, suggests parents might want to encourage their children with other incentives, such as special events or a favorite outing on the weekend, to help them see the test-taking as something that isn't stressful, but just a proof of what they've learned.
"What we're emphasizing to parents is supportiveness," Ishimaru said. "Not saying things like 'You must be really worried,' but giving them positive messages and not being anxious.
"Say things like 'I know you'll be taking the test. Just do your best but don't worry.' "
Teachers are emphasizing to students that they should not linger on a test question that stumps them. Move on, they advise, noting that they're not expecting students to get 100 percent.
In tightening testing security, Robert McClelland, director of the DOE's Planning and Evaluation Office, said the department added more rigorous training for principals and test coordinators in workshops designed specifically to go over what is permissible and what is not. The department also made it clear what was appropriate in using practice tests, including their timing.
"Using these practice tests just prior to the assessment testing would not be appropriate, so there's no question and no danger of there being any kind of concern about preparing kids specifically for the HSA," McClelland said.
The department also re-emphasized certain security measures including making sure test booklets aren't given to unauthorized people and are kept "under lock and key."
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STATE ASSESSMENT REQUIRES MULTIPLE TESTS OVER 10 DAYS
The Hawai'i State Assessment is conducted over 10 days between March 1 and April 13, with anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes of testing each day. The youngest children — third-graders — are tested for 30 minutes, but may have twice that time to complete the test. The oldest students — 10th-graders — are tested for 50 minutes each day, but also may have twice that time to complete the test if they want it.
"We're not power testing," said DOE testing specialist Pat Ishimaru. "With the SAT, it is just 28 minutes. But with the standards-based questions we want to be more natural, so students can have the time to show what they've learned."
The first day's testing will be the Stanford Achievement Test, which helps provide a comparison of Hawai'i students and those in other states.
The following three days will test the Hawai'i standards. And the final day will field-test new standards for 2007, when the assessment test will be based on those revisions. Every few years the state revises its standards and that's under way now.
Reach Beverly Creamer at email@example.com.