After months of preparation, students on verge of crucial statewide exam

After months of preparation, students on verge of crucial statewide exam

jmink@macon.comApril 13, 2014 

  • Bernd Elementary students enjoy a pep rally and parade in anticipation of the upcoming CRTC testing.by Jason Vorhees

When Jim Montgomery enters Weaver Middle School’s parking lot on Saturdays, it doesn’t seem like a weekend. Judging by the cars in the parking lot and the bustle inside the school, it’s like a typical school day.

It’s an impressive sight, Montgomery says, not just because so many students show up to get extra help, but because they want to attend the sessions. As the testing season approaches, more students than anticipated have been flocking to the weekend tutoring sessions, said Montgomery, Weaver Middle’s principal.

This week, Bibb and Houston county students begin taking the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, a statewide exam for elementary and middle school students that measures their skills in certain subjects. Educators have spent the past few weeks preparing for the tests, which can affect the future of students -- and schools. Meanwhile, school districts across the state are bracing for a change, since the test will be replaced next school year.

The test results count toward the school, the school system and the student. The CRCT results not only are the biggest factor in statewide school assessments, but they partially determine whether students pass on to the next grade, said Melissa Fincher, director of testing for the Georgia Department of Education.

All that can mean stress all around.

“I’m nervous,” said Ni’Aira Dawson, an eighth-grader at Weaver Middle. “I feel the CRCT is important for me to pass, and I want to get higher than my scores last year.”

At Weaver Middle School, Saturday sessions aim to help calm those nerves and give students confidence.

When Brianna Thomas thinks about the upcoming test, she can hear her teacher telling her to not strive for a passing score, but for a high score.

“She was like, ‘Come on guys, you can do it,’’’ said Brianna, a seventh-grade student. “I think we’re going to do awesome because our teacher, she makes sure we get the concepts or the problems we’re doing.”

After all, in many cases, the tests are anything but easy. In fact, they are meant to be stringent.

Students and teachers already have encountered content changes on both the CRCT and its high school equivalent, the End of Course Tests, as a result of the new Common Core education standards. Some subjects, particularly math, were more difficult for students on last year’s test, officials say.

“Throughout the county and the state, math really gives our students a hard time,” said Christopher Ridley, principal of Bernd Elementary School. “Common Core is different from the math we learned while we were going to school. It’s a different animal now.”

The new math standards require a different way of teaching and a different way of learning. There are more word and reasoning problems, and the standards (and, therefore, the test questions) require a deeper understanding of math equations. At Bernd, teachers have prepared students by giving them writing assignments in classes that normally would not require much writing, such as math and science, Ridley said. The coordinate algebra portion of the EOCT exams has been particularly tough for students across the state, Fincher said.

“The performance on it was not what we would have liked,” she said. Still, it’s an example of the type of rigor that is necessary for college and career readiness.

‘A learning curve’

As the CRCT is slated to be replaced next academic year, the new test will be more rigorous, with a focus on critical thinking, officials say. The End of Course Tests also will look different, though they will still serve as final exams for high school students, Fincher said.

Perhaps the biggest change will be more essay and fewer multiple choice questions.

“We’re moving away from what I call ‘multiple choice land,’’’ Fincher said. Open-ended questions “can more readily and more consistently measure their critical thinking skills.”

Also, the tests will be administered online. It will be a significant shift for many schools, as they transform the way they offer tests.

Many schools halt their routines on testing days as they administer tests to students at the same time. When the statewide exams go online, many schools will have to tweak their testing schedules because they do not have enough computers for each student. While some students take the CRCT in computer labs, for example, others will take regular classes, Fincher said.

“It’s going to be a learning curve for us as a state,” she said. “Georgia has been wading in the online pool. Now, we’re going full force.”

Children are more comfortable and more engaged when using computers. Additionally, digital testing eliminates the need for shipping, storing and distributing testing materials, Fincher said.

“In Bibb County, they will receive a couple of tons of testing materials,” she said. “That’s a lot of management.”

‘Step by step’

On Friday, some Bibb County schools were busy pumping up their students before test week.

Bernd Elementary students, for example, took part in a CRCT pep rally. The school has been offering CRCT tutoring sessions since February. Teachers -- and Mercer University students -- tutor children during and after school, as well as on Saturdays. It gives teachers the opportunity to work with small groups of students, and the children seem to genuinely enjoy the sessions, Ridley said.

After all, they understand the importance of the CRCT.

“The students know. They know it’s a big deal,” he said. “But we try ... to not stress them out.”

At Weaver Middle School, teachers use Saturday sessions not only to review the material, but also to instill confidence in their students. The school landed some federal Title I funding to hold the weekend sessions, and they identified children who needed extra help on the CRCT.

And students say the sessions have been beneficial. Seventh-grader Helen Dong needed extra help with geometry, and she now feels confident going into CRCT week.

“The teachers do the problems step by step,” Helen said. “And that teaches us well.”

On Saturdays, 10 to 15 teachers volunteer to work with students at Weaver Middle. School officials planned for a maximum of 100 students, but lately about 125 students have been attending. That’s more students than teachers identified for tutoring. Even students in the gifted program are showing up for Saturday tutoring, Montgomery said.

“If you pulled up on Saturday, you’d think it was a regular school day,” he said. “It’s very exciting to see that many students here on Saturday.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 744-4331.

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