Schools face end-of-year testing challenges

Published 8:03 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2016

End-of-year testing is a stressful time for students, teachers and parents alike.

The numbers are crunched and used to measure schools’ proficiency and growth at all grade levels, and the different levels face some of the same challenges with the testing atmosphere.

In the elementary schools, end-of-grade testing for math and reading begins in third grade, and a computer-based science exam is added in fifth grade, according to Amie O’Kane, fourth-grade teacher at John Small Elementary School.

By the time students reach O’Kane’s class, they have already experienced the EOGs once, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t nerves.

“We try to pep talk them,” she said. “I showed them, ‘Look you’ve done all this stuff. You’re ready.’”

O’Kane said she starts preparing for testing before Christmas, and gives an increasing number of practice tests as the date gets closer. It is difficult for many elementary students to sit through a three-hour exam, but teachers work to prepare them as best they can.

“It’s a lot,” O’Kane said. “If you teach what you’re supposed to, they’re prepared for the test.”

Sherrie Swain, a fifth-grade teacher at John Small Elementary School, said it is a challenge for her to prepare students for the science exam, along with math and reading. She said the science test does not build off of concepts already learned, as with math and reading, but rather focuses solely on new, fifth-grade concepts.

“They have to work really hard to be successful with it,” Swain said. “There’s a lot of information that they have to learn.”

She said she also doesn’t think the elementary students are ready to test for such a long period of time.

Along with the emphasis on student performance, teachers are also evaluated by the state based on test scores, and although individual results are recorded, all of the numbers reflect back on the whole school, according to O’Kane.

“We’re being graded by one test that the students take one day,” Swain said.

High schools feel the pressure during exam time from the state, as well.

“Personally, I think that we place way too much emphasis on these results. They are multiple-choice tests, and I question their accuracy overall for several reasons,” Southside High School Principal Dale Cole said in an email.

He said the standardized exams are mostly fact-based, but real-life experiences require critical thinking and problem solving. The scores do not always accurately depict a student’s knowledge, especially in cases of testing anxiety or students who do not try as hard as they can, Cole added.

Preparation on the teacher’s end is also an intensive process, just as with the younger grades.

“We prepare students by teaching the standard course of study throughout the semester. We try to pattern our questions after the template used for state exam questions, so they have practice reading and understanding them,” Cole said. “We also do an intensive review during the last week of school before exams.”

Despite the similar challenges across grade levels, another similarity lies in how teachers try to balance test scores with learning and retention.

“We have a finite amount of time with our students, so we sometimes have to choose between spending that time doing rote memorization activities to try to memorize facts for state exams or doing activities that promote critical thinking,” Cole said.

“It is a lot of pressure because for the teachers, for me, it’s not as much about passing a test as it is the students learning the concepts I’m trying to teach them,” Swain said.