By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
While their older peers have been diligently filling in bubbles with No. 2 pencils on standardized tests every year, kindergartners and first-graders at Highland Park Early Primary School have been spelling, counting and learning like they do every day. But beginning this spring, Highland Park students may also have their reading and math skills tested.
The students won't be taking written tests, but a small team of teachers from Highland Park is investigating new performance-based tests for students in those grades, to be given in short one-on-one sessions with teachers and paraprofessionals, said Sharon Bonderud, principal at Highland Park. The students are already given an in-house assessment once a year, but she said several assessments are available that provide schools with individualized data similar to written standardized test results.
"We're just looking at the ones that will give us the information we need," Bonderud said.
The data from the tests would help teachers improve their teaching, she said, adding that teachers in the younger grades don't have data from standardized ITBS tests to guide them.
"We don't have that to go on," she said.
Bonderud and two teachers have been meeting twice a month since September, she said.
"I've found some ideas and team members have ideas, so we're just kind of in the process of collecting those ideas and making some decisions on where we want to go," she said. The team is doing the groundwork, Bonderud said, but eventually the whole staff will be involved.
Duby Santee, principal of Washington Elementary School in Hamilton, gave a lecture on early assessments at the annual Montana Conference of Educational Leadership last month. About 80 educators from across the state, including Bonderud, attended.
Washington Elementary has been using an early literacy test developed by a group of researchers at the University of Oregon. The system, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literary Skills, is being used by more than 3,700 schools across 44 states, according to the group's Web site. DIBELS is one of the options Highland Park is looking at, Bonderud said. She said the school is also interested in doing a similar test for math.
Teachers at Washington Elementary have been using the assessments for reading skills for the past two years for kindergartners and first-graders, Santee said, and another local school began using them for second- and third-graders this year.
At first, he said, some teachers were concerned because trying to test students that young with traditional fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests has proven difficult.
"They said, 'OK, we've seen this kind of thing before and it's not good for kids,'" Santee said. "But we've gotten over that. This test does not work that way."
Washington Elementary tests students three times a year. The tests consist of a one-minute session for kindergartners and three one-minute sessions for first-graders.
Students are tested on their ability to understand the sounds letters make and their ability to identify letters. In later grades, students read passages aloud.
From the results of the testing, students are divided into three groups. Those who are proficient in the skills receive normal instruction. Children in the second group are pulled out of class for part of the day, three times a week, and are taught in small groups by a teacher. The group deemed in need of the most help gets regular one-on-one instruction from a teacher in half-hour segments.
Santee said all the testing materials for teachers can be downloaded on the Internet for free. Once testing is done, the results can be entered back into the computer and processed by the testing company for $1 a student.
Roxie Sporleder is a reading specialist at Montana State University-Bozeman and also was hired by the state Office of Public Instruction to consult with schools with students struggling in reading. She said research has shown that children as young as 3 and 4 years of age are developing skills that are critical for learning how to read. Depending on their home environment, some students may enter kindergarten without having learned those skills.
"If we can catch these students early and know who they are ... we can actually prevent a lot of reading problems," she said.
Sporleder said the way the tests are conducted are crucial to their success. For example, students being tested for phonemic awareness - being able to hear the individual sounds in words - should be tested with spoken words, not written ones. Otherwise the test may not accurately reflect their skills, she said.
She also said students should be assessed frequently - as often as once a month or more - so teachers can adjust teaching practices to target struggling students.
"Then those students should progress," she said. "If they're not, you need to do something different."
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said the administration has been working for several months on developing assessments for the district's youngest students.
"If we can get good baseline information on those students, we can focus on areas they need to improve in," Miller said. "The challenge is, with students that young, finding assessments that are meaningful and give accurate data."
Havre Public Schools begins to give written standardized tests to its students in third grade.
Miller said Highland Park has taken up the issue as part of its efforts to complete a five-year plan, which is required by state law. Other public schools in Havre developed their five-year plans last year, but the one at Highland Park was put on hold to give its new principal, Bonderud, a role in the planning.
Karen Swenson, principal at Lincoln-McKinley Primary School, said her school does not plan to adopt early assessment tests for second-graders this year, but that it may do so in the future.
"We're looking in that direction," she said.