Story last updated at 4:47 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

Exam stakes high for students, teachers
by Eowyn LeMay Ivey
Special to the Homer News

photo: schools

  Photo by Eowyn LeMay Ivey, Frontiersman
Jillian Stettenbenz erases a leter on her paper as she practices writing in her first-grade class. Writing has proven to be a challenging exam subject for some Mat-Su students, with between 20 and 40 percent of students not passing the benchmark exam at the third-, sixth-, and eighth-grade levels.  
PALMER -- High school junior Lydia Mathis is waiting for her test results. Last year, as a sophomore at Palmer High School, she took the High School Qualifying Exam, and sometime in October she'll find out how she did on the three separate sections.

"I'm pretty sure I passed at least two of them -- the math and reading," Mathis said last week. "A lot of it was stuff most people learned by their freshman year. There were a few things that were sophomore- or junior-level questions." The writing test, however, was more challenging, in part because it seemed somewhat subjective, Mathis said. She isn't as sure she passed this portion.

Passing or failing results aren't just a matter of idle curiosity -- Mathis and hundreds of other high school juniors are among the first class of Alaskans who will have to pass this exam in order to receive their diplomas.

The requirement is part of a law the Alaska Legislature passed in 1997 that set up the high school exams as well as benchmarks at the elementary and middle school level. Unlike norm-based exams such as the California Achievement Tests, which many parents probably took as children and compare students to national percentages, these new exams are designed to test individual students against statewide standards in reading, writing and mathematics. And unlike the CATs, the results carry some weight.

"These are definitely higher stakes tests," said Joe Nolting, who teaches math at Colony Middle School in Palmer. "Top down from the high school with the state qualifying exams, it puts a lot of pressure on students and the school because inevitably some students may not graduate or receive a regular diploma."

While the tests do appear to be creating some anxiety for teachers, students and even parents, most people seem to agree that the aim of the process is an admirable one -- to help schools better teach students.

Taking the test

With the addition of these statewide exams, students in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys are tested each year of their public education until they pass the high school qualifying exam. In grades three, six, eight and 10, the students take the state exams. In first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth grades, they take the TerraNova, a norm-referenced test similar to the CATs.

Nolting said he has heard some teachers compare the process to a farmer pulling up his carrots every day to see how much they've grown instead of spending the time cultivating the plants.

"I don't think we're totally overwhelmed with assessment yet, but I do think the potential is there," the math teacher said.

The testing requires several days out of each year in which the students are not learning but instead are answering question after question in an exam booklet. And for some students, this is a stressful business. Some eighth-graders taking the benchmark exams last year said they studied for weeks in advance, went to bed early the night before and ate wholesome breakfasts in the morning, all with the hopes of increasing their brainpower.

"I was kind of worried," admitted one Palmer Junior Middle School student.

Other students, like Lydia Mathis, say they don't find tests stressful and just do the best they can.

Interim Superintendent Bob Doyle says his own children reflect the wide range of approaches to testing. His one son seems to actually enjoy tests -- they are a challenge to tackle, an opportunity to show people how much he knows. Doyle's other son has a different view -- he thinks the tests are designed to find out how much he does not know.

"He goes in with a high level of stress," Doyle said.

Part of implementing these state tests, some educators say, is helping students overcome their fear of the process and learn how to be good test-takers. Doyle predicts that to some extent this will occur naturally over the years as the tests become part of the normal school year.

First-grade teacher Kathy Christy said she makes sure she uses the word "test" when she talks to her students. She wants the children to get over their fear of the word.

"The rest of their schooling they're going to use that word 'test.' I think if children have a relaxed attitude about it, it's to their benefit," Christy said.

During her more than 20 years as an educator, Christy said she, too, has seen how differently children react to exams and how their anxiety level can affect the final results. She said she wants her students to understand that they are helping the schools do a better job, that they are participating in important work.

Whether students are anxious or not heading into the exam, many say after the fact that it wasn't nearly as bad as they feared. Often the questions are easier than they anticipated, and the students knew more than they thought. There is also a sense of relief in handing in that last page -- for at least the rest of that school year, they are done with tests of this sort.

In a sense, turning in the exams is like handing off a baton of stress. Now it is time for the parents, teachers, district administrators and state decision-makers to start sweating.

Grading the tests

When taking the benchmark and high school exams, students are tested to see if, for their age, they know what educators and other Alaskans think they should.

As a part of the 1997 legislation, the Alaska Department of Education and state board of education worked with teachers and school administrators to determine what are called "content standards" -- broad statements regarding what students should know and be able to do. As a part of these standards, students are tested in three areas -- reading, writing and math.

photo: schools

  Photo by Eowyn LeMay Ivey, Frontiersman
Kathy Christy, who teaches at Swanson Elementary School in Palmer, works with first-graders Daren Estrada, center, and Braxton Williams as they learn to read. Christy has worked for 26 years as an educator and says the new state exams are yet another way to learn more about her job.  
At the same time, committees determined what scores would be considered appropriate. At the elementary and middle school level, students are determined to be advanced, proficient, below proficient or not proficient in each area based on their scores. At the high school level, it is simply a matter of passing or failing each section.

While this may all sound black-and-white, it is not. During the past few years, the Legislature and state government have continued to debate and adjust these standards. And as the results begin to come in, they are adjusting their expectations.

Just this year, the state decided to lower its cut scores for the high school exam so as to allow more students to pass. Not everyone agrees this was the best approach -- lowering the expectations when they weren't met -- but others say it was a necessary adjustment to a new process.

Kris Moore, president of the Mat-Su Council of PTAs, was a member of the committee that set those new cut scores. While the fluid nature of the exams makes some people uneasy, Moore said it gives her faith in the process.

"This isn't something they're just throwing together," she said. She said the committee included representatives from very diverse areas and backgrounds.

Doyle agrees the process must continue to evolve and improve, but he doesn't believe lowering the cut scores was the way to do it.

"I think it may give someone a sigh of relief, but it's not going to help students' learning," he said. "If the bottom line is helping students to learn ... then just changing the cut scores isn't going to address that."

This is just one debate of many developing out of this new educational movement sweeping both the state and the country. And while the details of how standards will be determined and how the tests will be conducted are not set in stone, educators say there still is something to be gained from the information, if used correctly.

Bringing the scores back to the classroom

At first glance, the state exams seem to be measuring students -- Are they smart enough? Are they working hard enough? Are they learning like they should?

This, however, is not the goal of the state exams, according to many educators and decision-makers. The tests are not designed to apply pressure to students, but instead determine if teachers and school districts are doing their jobs well and, if not, help them identify ways to do it better.

"We want to assess how well our teachers are carrying forward the curriculum," Doyle said.

Individual teachers use a wide variety of approaches, even within a single classroom, in order to help students with different learning styles. In a broad sense, the question asked by the state exams is whether these approaches are working.

This means not only testing the children and scoring the exams, but then looking at those scores within the context of individual schools and an entire district to see what areas need improving.

Moore, a Goose Bay Elementary School parent, said she is already seeing the results of this process at her children's school. She said at a school open house the principal discussed the need to improve writing scores.

"We became aware that writing is an area we need to put some emphasis," Moore said.

In response, the principal hired a part-time staff member to help students with writing, and the school is planning a "writing retreat" and other activities throughout the school year.

"I see the school taking it seriously," Moore said. "And I think that is extremely positive. ... It's an awesome thing to be able to assess our children, and I think it is very necessary to see where our successes are and what areas we need to strengthen."

Nolting, who has taught for more than 20 years, said he has seen a similar response to low math scores. He said he and other math teachers met before the start of the school year to design a curriculum map.

"We looked at benchmark scores from that year and TerraNova scores and tried to look at some areas that across the board we were pretty weak in," Nolting said. "We looked at how we are going to address this, specifically in what units, what concepts."

Nolting said the tests and their generated results have added some stress to the teachers' work environment, especially with the looming possibility of schools and teachers being labeled and penalized based on the test results of their students.

At the same time, Nolting said, he does see some positive changes coming out of the testing process.

"Right now we've got the pregame jitters," he said. "But there are good things about stress -- it makes everyone work a little harder."

One could imagine a longtime educator like Kathy Christy becoming frustrated with a new set of tests and standards designed to tell teachers what they are doing wrong. And having been in the field since 1976, Christy says she has seen many trends come and go, and sometimes return again.

However, the Swanson Elementary first-grade teacher says she appreciates the opportunity the standardized tests provide to see where schools are succeeding and where they are not. And as the process is fine-tuned, she said it will increasingly benefit the education system.

"I do like trying new things. I say to other teachers, 'I don't know everything.' That's what keeps me in the field, because I'm learning something new every day," she said. "It's exciting to learn -- just like the students. It's fun to learn with them."

Even as individual schools and teachers try to put these test scores to good use, the district is also looking at them closely. A recent Mat-Su school district advertisement outlined the results from last year's benchmark exams as compared to the statewide results.

In general, Mat-Su appears to be holding its own when compared with Alaska as a whole. But the interim superintendent believes that just because the district has a smaller percentage failing a specific area than statewide doesn't mean schools should rest on their laurels. Those students who were determined to not be "proficient" are apparently not learning what they need to, and he says he wants to address that gap by aligning curriculum and identifying student populations or subjects that need attention.

"How is that one student doing compared to the standard -- That's where the power is," said Connie Lutz, a teacher and assessment specialist with the district. "That's where you can tease out all sorts of important information."

For example, the district can look at subgroups within schools, such as ethnicity or gender, to see if certain groups of students are not doing as well as others. The same is true of particular subjects, such as reading or math.

Doyle said he sees the test scores as a tool to look at the larger picture and identify weaknesses or strengths across the board.

Bringing the test scores home

While it may be possible for educators to take a step back and look at test results with a certain level of detached professionalism, it is a different matter for parents. Even knowing the many factors that can affect an exam score -- testing anxiety, lack of sleep, a touch of the flu -- parents are no less disappointed, even angry or worried, when their child brings home low test scores.

"It's intimidating," Moore said, as a parent. "Nobody wants their kid put on a scale."

In many cases, Moore said, parents are handed the results with little explanation, and they aren't sure what to do with them.

Individual teachers and schools, as well as the district as a whole, are working to remedy this problem. During these first years, educators have been struggling to understand the process themselves. Increasingly, through parent-teacher conferences and media releases, the district is trying to help parents understand their child's test scores.

As a part of this effort, district officials are urging parents to remember that the state exams are just one piece of a larger puzzle.

"When they are looking at whether their child was successful, try to keep these tests in their proper perspective," said Kim Floyd, public information specialist with the district. "It's a snapshot of one day in their lives."

Floyd said other indicators, such as whether a child turns in homework, shows up for class on time, appears to enjoy learning, and does well on in-class tests, are factors just as critical in determining a child's success.

The key, educators say again and again, to truly knowing how your child is doing is asking the questions and getting involved. By talking with their children and communicating with the teacher, parents can have a clearer idea of how the students are faring beyond benchmark exams.

"I think parents should take a really active part in that," Christy said. "The parents can have their children doing homework and reading at home ... It really takes all three -- the parent, the child and the teacher."

As a parent and active PTA member, Moore agrees.

"Parents also need to take on a certain amount of responsibility in asking questions and getting involved," she said.

She said she would have found the state tests far more frightening if she had not been so involved.

"But being able to participate, I have faith in the process," Moore said.

By engaging in their children's education, parents can learn more both about their own student and the system as a whole. For some, this means volunteering in the classroom or attending PTA meetings. But it can be much simpler as well.

"Parent involvement ... can be reading to your child at night, sending an e-mail to the teacher," Floyd said. "Taking an interest in your child's education is parent involvement."

Eowyn LeMay Ivey, a lifelong Alaskan and award-winning eight-year veteran of Alaska journalism, covers schools and education issues for the Frontiersman newspaper in Wasilla. Comments on this story can be sent to