By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
In the usual fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests, students don't have to draw a graph tracking global warming, or write an essay about how a hurricane is formed.
When a new kind of standardized test hits the desks of Havre fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders this spring, nearly half the possible points will come from questions like those, to be answered in the students' own handwriting.
The tests will be the single biggest measuring stick used to determine which schools meet the tough standards of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's sweeping education reform law. The law requires all students to score at a level rated as proficient in reading and math by 2014.
The new tests require a specific level of mastery in each subject area. The standardized tests students take now, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Iowa Test of Education Development, score students by comparing their scores with those of students across the country in a given year.
Students will be tested in reading and math this year. Eventually they will also be tested in science.
Havre fourth- and eighth-graders will continue to take the Iowa test in addition to the new test, called the Measured Progress test - meaning a total of about 10 hours of testing between mid-March and mid-April. Eleventh-graders will take the old ITED test, and 10th-graders will take the new test.
HPS assistant superintendent Dennis Parman held two meetings with teachers in January to explain the new format and give them a packet with sample questions and test-taking strategies.
"Everything we've seen about these questions tell us that it's probably the best standardized assessment we've seen," Parman told teachers Tuesday.
In constructed-response reading questions, students read short passages and write short essays on them. A sample fourth-grade question asks students to read a two-page passage about a debate over school dress codes and uniforms. They are then asked to "describe how school clothes can create problems for students. Use information from the article to support your answer."
In a sample math test, fourth-graders were asked to make two different patterns of numbers based on rules they make up, and to tell how many 1-inch cubes would fit inside a box with given dimensions.
Parman provided teachers with a list of strategies to prepare students for the tests. Those include using a highlighter to identify key words in reading passages, teaching students to make outlines, and giving students sample questions to do in class.
Math strategies included practicing story problems, encouraging students to use math vocabulary, and making sure students label their graphs and charts.
"Teachers have been pretty positive," Parman said after the meeting. He said the strategies for math, like using a formal scoring guide to score problems, might be new for some teachers, but that some teachers have been using these kinds of strategies in reading for years.
Fourth-grade teacher Jane Valdez-Antey said she has had her students create their own story problems in math and highlight key words in the problem. In reading, she said, she has had them highlight information in passages and then proofread their written answers.
"I've helped them to realize that the facts and details are in the passage, and all they have to do is return to the passage if they don't recall the information," she said.
Valdez-Antey also made a poster to make her students familiar with the scoring guide.
Teachers were given a scoring guide and examples of scored responses with each sample question. To get a score of four on a reading question, for example, students must give "well-developed" descriptions and explanations, and use details from the passage. On the other end of the scale, responses that are "vague" and use personal statements instead of drawing on facts from the passage receive a one.
Valdez-Antey, teaching for her first year in Havre, previously taught in Texas, where the model of No Child Left Behind was implemented under then-Gov. Bush. She said she thinks the new test will allow students to demonstrate their knowledge better than a simple multiple choice test.
Peggy Safley, chair of the English Department at Havre High School, said Tuesday that the new questions will require a different kind of analysis than the multiple-choice answers, but it's something English teachers already work on at the high school.
"That's exactly the kind of thing I was going over with my AP class today," Safley said. Even so, she said, teachers in the department will probably spend some time teaching specifically for the new questions.
It may be more difficult for the district to prepare some of its students for the test. No Child Left Behind divides students into 11 subgroups according to factors like race and economic status. Special education students are one of the groups that must pass the new test. Under No Child Left Behind, if one group of students does not make the required benchmark, the entire school is considered to be failing to meet standards.
Karla Wohlwend, HPS personnel and special services director, said a variety of accommodations can be made for special education students taking the test. Those range from standard accommodations, like changing the time of day a student takes a test, to nonstandard accommodations, like using a calculator on a section where calculators are normally not permitted, or having a proctor read the test aloud to the student.
Students who can't take the test with either type of accommodation - those with severe cognitive disabilities - may need to take an alternate assessment, she said.