Local schools say preparing for MAP tests is a year-long effort

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Callie Callis begins her End-of-Course Assessments alongside fellow students Monday in the library of Cape Girardeau Central High School. (Laura Simon)

It has become a rite of passage at Alma Schrader Elementary School.

Third- and fourth-grade students race down the hallways, bursting through banners to the cheers of their younger schoolmates.

"It's like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, [Spain], but it's the running of the halls of Alma Schrader," principal Ruth Ann Orr said. "It gets them ready for the test, and it's something they really look forward to."

It's like the March Madness of academics, the biggest competition these student and tens of thousands of their peers at public schools statewide will face this school year -- the all-important Missouri Assessment Program grade-level examinations for students in grades three through eight.

With so much riding on the outcome of the tests, Missouri schools in recent weeks have stepped up their efforts to prepare, with the grade-level MAP testing window opening March 28 and running through April 29.

But administrators at Southeast Missouri public schools say there's no cramming for MAP, that the road to the assessments begins the first day of school and the concepts on the test are entrenched in today's public education curriculum and culture.

Teaching for the test

In today's performance-based environment, Missouri school districts must have curriculum aligned to grade-level expectations, administrators say. The testing, effectively, is built out of the curriculum, so if teachers reach students through daily instruction, chances are students will do well on the MAP tests.

"We prepare from day one," said Theresa Hinkebein, curriculum coordinator for the Cape Girardeau School District. "From the beginning of school up until the time of testing, the content is what the test is based on."

In the Jackson School District, as in Cape Girardeau public schools, classes take multiple MAP-like tests, and learn power words and phrases to prepare for examinations.

"It's not something we start in March to get ready in April. It's a year-long process," said Rita Fisher, Jackson schools assistant superintendent.

It's about teaching and reteaching core curriculum throughout the year, and freshening up lessons in the weeks leading up to the MAP and EOC tests, administrators say.

"Whenever you get close to the test, within a week or two, you refine some of those skills, and you cover that material again to make sure it's fresh in their mind," said Mike Johnson, principal at Scott City High School and a former algebra teacher. "There may be some things you've gone over in the first quarter of the year that they haven't seen since then."

Expectation, anxiety

The Missouri Assessment Program was born out of the Show Me Standards in 1996, the core knowledge expectations for the state's public schools. Testing began in 1998, and MAP became Missouri's testing benchmark under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, mandating among other points in its school accountability arm that all students will be at the proficient level on state testing. The mark has been rising every year, at 72.5 percent of all students for math and 75.5 percent in communication arts this year. A complex formula takes into account improving student performance under Adequate Yearly Progress, but it requires marked improvement from at-risk student populations, among others.

Title I schools -- schools that receive federal funding for remedial programs -- that fail to meet the standards can be placed on the No Child Left Behind watch list and hit with sanctions, like Blanchard Elementary School this year and Jefferson Elementary last school year. The schools also are eligible for additional funding, but the perceived tag of failure that comes with the Schools in Need of Assistance designation can feel like a scarlet letter, according to educators.

With such high stakes comes anxiety.

"I don't think there's any way that you cannot have anxiety in school district," Fisher said. "It is high stakes testing, so much of it is how we are accountable to the state, and that rides on how our students do with that one test."

That stress often rubs off on students, she said.

For schools like Alma Shrader, not tied into Title I and the federal sanctions, there is a different kind of stress in play.

"While we don't have that sword of Damocles hanging over our heads as far as the sanctions go, we are still expected to do well on the test because we don't have that population that tends to be at-risk," Orr said. "So the expectation for us is to do well, which puts just as much stress on my staff."

She said educators have made it a personal challenge that the school live up to the expectations, and Alma Schrader's MAP scores seem to support that assertion.

Schools employ strategies to reduce big-test anxiety, and it begins with preparation and instilling confidence in that preparation, Hinkebein said.

"We try to ensure the children that we have prepared them for the test all year long and that they are going to do well," she said.

At the lower levels, Hinkebein said schools do more motivational activities, including rewards, celebrations, affirmations of success, much like Alma Schrader's pep rally run through the halls.

Time to shine

Much has changed over the past dozen years of MAP. The testing program has added science assessments and expanded the End-of-Course Examinations taken by the state's high school students. That testing calendar opened last week and runs through May 27. The assessments, in the subject areas of algebra I, biology, English II and government, are taken following the completion of the course. Additional End-of-Course assessments in American history, English I, algebra II and geometry, can be used to bolster a school district's overall annual performance.

On Monday, Cape Girardeau Central High School students took a voluntary EOC examination online. Beginning this summer, all EOC tests will be given online.

Junior Josh Sissom wasn't among the test-takers Monday, but he has taken an English EOC. He said he didn't find the examination too taxing.

"They always tell us how important it is," he said. "But there ain't really no pressure on us."

The pressure is on the school districts in making sure every student who finishes a course takes the exam. If not, the district could lose points in its Annual Yearly Progress rating, which is tied to its standing under No Child Left Behind. Districts do have the option to make the EOC examinations weigh on the final grade, perhaps as high as 25 percent in the future. In the Cape Girardeau School District at the moment, test success is student-driven.

"A lot of students do that for motivation. Otherwise students have no incentive to do well," Hinkebein said.

For the younger students, where MAP scores have a pronounced impact on a school's standing, the mantra is being prepared and doing your best.

"We tell the children it is your chance to show your parents, the world what you've learned," Orr said. "Here's your moment to shine."



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