Educators Pull Out All The Stops For Good Test Scores
By GRACE E. MERRITT
February 28, 2010
Two teachers and a guidance counselor blinged out in gold chains, sunglasses and running suits will rap about the Connecticut Mastery Test Monday at a rally in a Wolcott school gym to try to get middle school students excited about taking the test.
"M is for mastery. It means knowing the material!
Best go to bed early and have a lot of cereal!"
The show is a big hit with students who love seeing their teachers acting cool and also love challenging the teachers to improvise, daring them to find a rhyme for "Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil."
Similar school rallies took place around the state last week. Teachers shot T-shirts into crowds with giant slingshots in Wolcott. A New Haven school brought in the Yale marching band to rev up students. And the entire New Haven school district hosted an egg-and-sausage breakfast for 200 bus drivers to encourage them to greet students warmly and get them to school on time during the tests.
The only way to understand the hoopla on the part of otherwise level-headed adults is to understand exactly what's at stake: Everything.
Not only do the CMTs determine how well elementary students are doing in math, reading, writing and science, the tests serve as a report card for the school and the entire school district. A strong showing can burnish a strong reputation, while a poor performance can lead to sanctions that could even force the school to restructure.
"This is how you're ranked, how you're judged on how well you're doing," said Michelle Wade, spokeswoman for the New Haven school system.
Poetry And Yoga
The whole process starts Monday when 280,000 Connecticut students in grades 3 to 8 begin the tests, which span a couple of weeks and gauge whether students have mastered each subject for their grade level.
At high schools around the state Tuesday, sophomores will also be busy taking the Connecticut Academic Performance Test. While those students show their proficiency in writing, reading comprehension, science and math — all a part of state graduation requirements — many freshmen will take practice exams during the testing days to prepare them for next year.
In Wolcott, guidance counselor Shawn Simpson, one of the teacher rappers, said it's not easy getting students "psyched up for a test, but if we can add some fun, add a twist to it, it'll make it more fun and exciting."
The way Simpson sees it, if a student remembers even one line of his goofy rap song, it could help him do better, he said.
Each school has its own techniques for trying to get students psyched up and prepared for the test. Some simply sent letters home advising parents to make sure their child gets a good night's sleep and a nutritious breakfast. Others got more creative.
Students in Thompson held a poetry contest, with each entry offering words of encouragement to get through the test. In New Canaan, students blogged about learning. In Hartland, teachers put on a funny skit about the importance of rest, relaxation and nutritious eating during the test. Meanwhile, some West Hartford students learned yoga to de-stress and focus, and others got letters of encouragement from younger students.
New Haven, which is struggling to turn around some low-performing schools, held a health fair focused on helping kids stay healthy during the test, as well as a CMT prep camp over February school vacation.
National Test Frenzy
Schools in many other states also work themselves into a frenzy to motivate students before tests, going so far as to have the principal offer to shave his head — or in one case, even offering a car as an incentive for doing well on a test, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
In Connecticut, parents will get a report on each child's test results, and scores will be used to drive instruction at each school and pinpoint areas that should be tweaked.
But a lot more than just student and school performance is at stake. Real estate agents figure out each school's ranking and sell houses based on the quality of the neighborhood school. Connecticut magazine uses the data to compile its annual ranking of towns, said Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy.
"There's a lot riding on it," he said.
For many schools, the stakes are even higher because the federal government sanctions schools that don't perform well. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools that score poorly and fail to make significant improvements the following year are required to spend federal funds for tutoring and public school choice to address low test scores.
In the worst-case scenario, a school that continues to fail after seven years may see the principal fired and the school restructured. A handful of urban schools have reached that point in Connecticut.
Some critics say this emphasis makes districts desperate to drive scores up to avoid sanctions.
"Test scores have become all that matters," Schaeffer said. "People's jobs are on the line. People's reputations are on the line."
Still, local educators believe that a little motivation is a good thing.
"I think children react to things much the way adults do, said Robert Rader of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "Some incentives, some spirit-building, can help them prepare to take the tests in a positive spirit."
•Courant staff writer Vanessa de la Torre contributed to this story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at