Teacher Maria Cullinane uses an
electronic blackboard to help
Cliffside Park, New Jersey sixth
grader Alexander Velasquez learn
math in preparation for a state exam.
Carmine Galasso/The Record/MCT
By Serdar Tumgoren
The Record (Hackensack N.J.) (MCT)
HACKENSACK, N.J. — School districts eager to boost scores and keep pace with federal mandates are using computer games, electronic blackboards and even pep rallies to prepare students for state exams.
Technology in particular has become a mainstay for some schools as they prepare students for an acronym soup of tests.
For example, in late April and early May, students in the fifth through seventh grades in Bergen and Passaic counties will take the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge, or ASK, while eighth-graders will round out the year with the Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment, or GEPA.
Poor scores can spell dire consequences for schools, which under federal laws can be forced to bus students to other districts, replace teachers, or in the most extreme cases, convert to charter schools. The pressure to meet federal mandates for student progress has inspired districts to use traditional and not-so-traditional test preparation methods.
"A few years back we weren't meeting all of the benchmarks in a number of areas, in a number of schools," said Michael Romangino, schools superintendent in Cliffside Park, N.J. "As of this year, we've met all of the benchmarks in every area, in every school except one. ... I don't like to use the term `teaching towards the test,' but in a sense, I think a lot of districts do do that because the test results are public and they're important."
He credits the district's improvement to a mix of after-school test preparation, a core curriculum molded to state standards, and a healthy dose of technology.
"We've kind of found a good balance, where we realize we have to integrate things into the daily programs and then treat the after-school programs as a little extra prepping," Romangino said.
And for fifth-graders stuck prepping for those tests, a few bells and whistles help the minutes fly by after school.
A sea of hands fly up at Cliffside Park's School 6 when math teacher Donna Sevy asks for volunteers. Students in the after-school prep course all want a chance to demonstrate their mastery of the material on an electronic blackboard. Using special markers or even their fingers, they can solve algebra equations or piece together slices of a circle to demonstrate percentages.
And students can keep practicing at home using Web-based software from Study Island, in Dallas. The computer program, used by more than 6 million students nationwide, teaches math and language skills through video games. It also serves up problems in a plain question-and-answer format, but tech-savvy students prefer the game.
Sixth-grader Pracheeta Dhawan said she doesn't need any prodding from her parents to log in and study.
"They don't have to ask," she said. "It's fun and you get to learn more."
The Bergenfield, N.J., public schools also rely on the software as one piece in a full-year program geared to improve student learning.
"We do after-school programs where we hire teachers to work with students who need extra help in critical areas," schools Superintendent Michael Kuchar said. "We have summer enrichment programs for students to strengthen their skills. And we use Study Island software."
Lakeside Middle School in Pompton Lakes, N.J., also offers students the Study Island software, but the district does not schedule after-school or weekend test preparations. Instead, the district hired consultants to help teachers integrate curriculum standards into daily classroom instruction. The approach provides students with an early glimpse of the types of problems they will see in coming days on the ASK and GEPA, while leaving them time for extracurricular activities.
"Kids need to be kids," Amoroso said, adding: "I think we teach to the standards and we know the test is going to measure kids' performance. ... We're aware of it but it doesn't consume us."
Several schools in Paterson, N.J., use pep rallies to get kids in the test-taking mood.
"We tell the kids the test can be your friend, because it will help you find out what you're good in and what you need help in," said Marlene Friedman, a school counselor at Martin Luther King Elementary School. Before third- and fourth-graders take the ASK each spring, Friedman leads them in singalongs and skits.
"A lot of people think little children don't feel stress, but they do," she said. "Before tests we teach them relaxation techniques like slowing down and relaxing, and thinking of something happy. We want to help them make the stress monster go away."
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