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Test Prep Goes Into High Gear

After Parkville teachers identified students most likely to reach the proficient level on the state tests with some focused remediation, extra help before and after school ramps up and students are told to "take ownership" of their learning. Included: A description of test preparation strategies.

The new year brought more urgent deadlines to Parkville Community School.

About This Series

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending time this school year at Parkville Community Schoolin Hartford, Connecticut, to report on the challenges an urban school faces and the strategies it employs in its quest to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMTs) are slated to start March 5. This is the schools third and last chance to achieve Safe Harbor, a category of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act just below adequate yearly progress (AYP). To make Safe Harbor, a school must reduce the percentage of non-proficient students by 10 percent from the previous year.

Everyone at Parkville -- classroom teachers, administrators, reading and math specialists, and music and physical education teachers -- is being called on to help students on the brink of proficiency make it to the next level.

On the CMTs, a level 3 score is considered proficient. Parkville needs a 10 percent decrease in the number of non-proficient students from last year, which means those who scored at levels 1 and 2. Credit also will be given for students who move from level 1 to level 2.

With just under 30 days to go before the tests start, principal Elizabeth Michaelis wants teachers to zero-in on students who have been falling just short of proficiency, based on practice tests and classroom performance. She is hopeful that enough level 1 and 2 students will be able to move up to pull Parkville out of the danger zone.

In deciding who would be referred for intensive intervention, faculty members reviewed a series of assessments for students, to also see how they have been performing on a day-to-day basis, Michaelis said. "We cant just rely on one days score, even though thats what counts in the assessment. We have to make were sure making the right accommodations."


Click here to learn about reading lessons in a sixth-grade class.

For several days in early January, Michaelis and support staff members met with classroom teachers in grades three to six charged with identifying students in different subgroups (Hispanic, African American, English language learners, special education) at levels 1 and 2 with the best chance of scoring at a higher level on the math, reading, or writing section of the CMTs, if they received intensive, targeted remediation.

The plan included signing up the targeted students for Power Hour, which is before-and after-school extra help held several days a week. Power Hour is designed to focus on areas in which students are weak. Teachers were instructed at a faculty meeting to sign up to teach certain sections of Power Hour (Teachers are paid for that additional instructional time.)Michaelis also told staff members that she wanted Power Hour open to higher-performing students as well, and told teachers to give them enrichment projects.

"Im tired of telling parents whose kids excel that there is nothing for them," Michaelis said at a faculty meeting. "They still want college, they still want scholarships. This is what parents want and the kids want, so we are opening this up to them."

Finding Balance

In the interest of balance, principal Elizabeth Michaelis reluctantly agreed to let the third-through-sixth graders take advantage of free ice skating lessons at nearby Trinity College from January until March.

Initially she had resisted the offer. Why would I want to give up more instructional time in the middle of the day? They are competing for instructional time.

The ice-skating schedule, though, was arranged so that no class went more than twice during the program. The skating lessons are part of the physical education period, which is extended a bit to accommodate travel time.

But time away from class means students need to work harder when they return from the ice. I reminded the students that I expected them to be really focused in class, Michaelis said. When they are here, they have to focus.

But as with anything involving human behavior, there are multiple variables affecting the plan. In some cases, students who are performing well or above the proficient level in class fall short on the state tests, for whatever reason. Some families have not responded to urgent requests to enroll their children in Power Hour.

A third grade teacher noted that one student is doing well on writing assignments, but is a poor speller. "But spelling doesnt count on the writing section," Michaelis assured her.

The performance of another student under consideration for intensive mediation, the teacher noted, depends on the day. "Hes not always focused." "You have to let him know his potential," suggested assistant principal Latesha Jones.

One child is writing very well -- in Portuguese.

"Can they move to level 3?" Michaelis asked one third grade teacher about a list of students. "Weve got 30 days."

The math facilitator, Ms. Sycamore, suggested teachers identify the skills with which students need improvement and assign those for homework.

"I work in small group instruction," said another third grade teacher. "If I move up ten kids, Ill dance around the school."


Other factors come into play as well. A sizeable chunk of the schools population is transient; some students left school after a few months, some who left later returned to Parkville, while others have recently transferred in. Assessments need to be tracked down and dates checked to determine if their CMT scores will apply to Parkville.

Race also has to be sorted out, because according to NCLB, students have to be assigned to racial subgroups. But the federal categories are not broad enough to cover everyone in a contemporary urban school -- many families no longer identify themselves as just one race.

"Can they move to level 3? Weve got 30 days."
Is someone from Suriname always black? a person wondered. Could the kids from Mozambique not be black?

Further complicating Parkvilles mission is the loss of five instructional days two weeks before testing starts. School is closed for winter break from February 19 to February 23.

But remediation strategies are being devised to maximize time and resources. Michaelis told teachers she wanted the targeted students to meet with her and other staff members at the end of January to explain what they have been working on and how they know they have improved. "I want targeted students and parents to understand we have targeted goals because of Safe Harbor," Michaelis said. "I want the kids to take ownership of their learning. I want to hear from them, and hear about their Power Hour."


A week before the targeted students met with her, Michaelis spent part of a morning spot-checking classes.

She slipped into rooms armed with a binder that held each students name and test results.

"I want to make sure they are using the data in determining what to teach in whole group instruction and what to teach in small groups," Michaelis said. Students recently had been assessed again, and some other assessments still were taking place. "Teachers need to target specific areas with different kids."

In one sixth grade class, during a math lesson, she asked a boy to show her what CMT strand he was working on.

"I would expect that they would use data to target instruction -- not a textbook, not a calendar," Michaelis said later. "If all they are doing is turning pages, then they are not using data. They need to ask, What are the skills necessary to learn the next math skill?"


By the end of January, Parkville is a driven institution. A banner reading "Be A CMT Champion" greets visitors coming in the main entrance. The number of days until the CMTs is on the wall, as well as the testing schedule.

"I work in small group instruction. If I move up ten kids, Ill dance around the school."
Posted of vocabulary words also decorate the hallways, in areas where students are likely to linger.

The almost total focus with the CMTs does not concern Michaelis. She has said previously that they are teaching to Connecticut standards, which she believes represent solid skills.

"We cant do the same as Simsbury [a wealthy suburban district] and get the same results," she said. "Time is a factor. This [intensive remediation] brings us to a more level playing field."

At the same time, no one wants the students paralyzed by pressure. "There has to be a balance between pushing and motivating," Michaelis continued. "There needs a balance so there is not an overwhelming level of concern."

When students see their achievement level growing, their confidence grows as well, she added. "We are helping parents understand this is not impossible. We are seeing huge progress and growth in people."


When a group of targeted fourth graders come into the conference room with their teacher, they are quiet and serious, clutching folders.

"How many days until the CMTs?" Michaelis asked.

"Twenty," several answered.

"Weve been looking at things and think you are the ones who can do better on the CMTs, not just for yourselves, but for Parkville School and so we can do better for No Child Left Behind," Michaelis explained to the ten students. "I asked your teacher to help you prepare."

She asked the students to open their folders and show her where they were in math and how they know what to work on. Several showed her blue sheets with highlighted math strands.

"How do you work on different strands?" she asked. "How do you make sure you learn that?"

"Homework," the kids said. "Working during recess." "Power Hour."

"The more you do this individually, the better you know what you know and can move on to the next thing," she told them.


Several students also talked about their progress on the CMT writing section. The duration of the writing section has given Parkville students problems in the past. "Part of the challenge of the writing test is that kids need to build up stamina," according to Michaelis. "They need to be able to write for a sustained period of time."

A sixth grader knew that was his weakness. "I need a little more help with the writing prompt," he said to Michaelis. "Sometimes I cant finish. Ive got thoughts, but I cant always get them down."

"Its going to be tricky. You have to look carefully."
Michaelis asked a fifth grader what he is doing to improve his writing. His teacher responded that he also needed to work on his timing -- he doesnt always complete the assignment in time.

Michaelis asked the boy if he is having trouble finishing because he does not like to write, and he whispered, "Yes."

She launched into a pep talk. "I know you can do it. I know other subjects are easy for you, but this is something where you need to put in a lot of energy for a short time. When you get to the writing prompt, you are really going to have to put in a lot of energy."

Sixty percent of the section is writing, and the other 40 percent editing and revising. Michaelis asked a group of fourth graders what they need for a good writing sample.

Students were quick to respond: "An entertaining beginning." "A problem." "Solutions" "Main ideas" "Details."

On the editing and revising section, students say they have to look for errors in capitalization and punctuation. Transpositions of words like there and their.

"Its going to be tricky," a boy said. "You have to look carefully."


In some cases, students had carefully recorded noticeable progress over the past 20 days or so. Ms. Maple, one of the reading specialists, noted that reading scores everyone for everyone in a sixth g class went up, and scores for the target students increased each time they were assessed.

"One child is writing very well -- in Portuguese."

"How come when you keep going up, theres nothing else to read in the library?" a girl asked. Ms. Maple explained that she is trying to get higher-level reading material. "Were the first elementary school asking for seventh and eighth grade books."

Near the end of one meeting, a student asked a question that gave Michaelis a chance to explain what drives her.

"Why do we take the CMTs?" a girl asked.

Michaelis explained it was because of the No Child Left Behind Act, which the Congress passed because the government realized people in cities and minorities, were not doing well enough in school.

"When they say, no child left behind, they are talking about you guys, right here at Parkville," she continued. "We want to make sure you do well enoughso you have the same chances as everyone else to get good jobs

"Our state is known as a highly-educated state. But we have the highest gap between wealthy and poor kids

But everyone can do this. Thats why youre here."