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Exam season opens next week; teachers worry about fatigue

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Students may seem a bit haggard after school over the next two months after spending their days reviewing and then taking tests over the math, reading, science and other subjects they’ve learned this school year.

Every spring, Indiana tests students to see how well they’ve mastered the lessons taught in their third- through eighth-grade classes with the ISTEP exam. That test comes in two parts, an essay portion given in March and an online multiple-choice portion given at the end of April. Between those tests, third-graders also will take the IREAD-3 exam, which the state requires to see if students are reading at grade level.

Along with those state exams, students must complete the quizzes and tests given in their classes, along with periodic assessments teachers use to measure how well everyone in class is keeping up.

Teachers spend the weeks leading up to these tests reviewing math and language arts lessons and reminding students why the exams are important and that the results could determine the kinds of classes they take next school year. But teachers also don’t want to overwhelm students so that they’re so nervous they can’t concentrate on test day.

“That’s the nature in which we do our work, in that this is the time of season that becomes very focused on the assessment part of what (students are) learning. I think the teachers feel tired, and I’m sure the students do as well,” Isom Elementary School Principal Sondra Wooton said.

Testing windows for ISTEP and IREAD-3 are set by the state and happen in the spring so that the information students are tested on is still fresh in their minds. Testing for in-class assessments that track students’ abilities typically happens throughout the school year.

The weight and value of the different tests vary.

The state uses the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus exam to measure how much students in Grades 3 through 8 have learned during the school year, and students’ scores are used to calculate schools’ grades and factor into teachers’ annual evaluations, which impact their pay.

Schools also can use ISTEP scores to decide whether middle school students are prepared enough to enroll in honors or advanced courses, Greenwood assistant superintendent of learning Rick Ahlgrim said.

By asking students to answer questions about essays and texts, IREAD-3 measures whether third-graders are reading at grade level.

Students who don’t pass the exam in the spring or a retest over the summer cannot advance to fourth-grade reading lessons.

ISTEP and IREAD-3 are one-time exams that provide a snapshot of a students’ abilities on a single day. So after a few months, they can’t be used to accurately measure students’ abilities. That’s why teachers use in-class assessments, including a system called Acuity, multiple times throughout the school year to gauge how much students have learned. Acuity also is used to predict how well a student will perform on ISTEP, and teachers can adjust their lessons based on how students’ scores change, Ahlgrim said.

Students with low Acuity or other test scores typically receive help from teachers and aides in math, language arts or other subjects they’re struggling in.

Last month, Isom Elementary added more time for students who were struggling. Thirty students with low Acuity scores were selected to stay after school and review lessons they didn’t understand with teachers.

Isom started the program because school officials weren’t sure they could give struggling students all of the help they needed during the school day, Wooton said.

“We’re just always looking for ways we can make sure they have what they need so they’ll be confident when it comes time to take the high-stakes test,” she said.

Isom also included instructions in the school’s newsletter about how parents can use an online program at home that reviews Acuity lessons their students didn’t understand. Wooten also had a meeting with third-grade parents this month, explaining what IREAD-3 is, what kinds of questions would be asked and why it’s important for students to pass the exam.

At Northwood Elementary School in Franklin, students have Muffins with Mom and Doughnuts with Dad events before both sections of the ISTEP exam.

Both days are designed to make sure students and parents know what will happen on ISTEP days and to explain to them why the exam is important, Principal Katie Crites said. That way students aren’t surprised by anything that happens on test day, and parents can ensure their children get enough sleep and proper meals before they’re tested.

Teachers and principals also are spending time reminding students of techniques that will give them the best chance at answering questions correctly, such as reviewing the questions asked about an essay before reading the text and showing their work on math problems.

Most students learned and have been practicing those habits since the start of the school year, and teachers and principals want to be sure students keep using them even as they take test after test, Creekside Elementary School Principal Mark Heiden said.

The principals know that some students will get tired or fatigued by taking so many tests in a relatively short period. While they want students to understand why the scores matter, it’s also important not to overwhelm them and make them anxious on test day, the principals said.

That’s why at Creekside, Heiden doesn’t spend a lot of time talking with students about the weight of the scores. He tells them that this is their chance to demonstrate how much they’ve learned.

“In the end, kids don’t care about school letter grades or school accountability. We adults care about that, and our state cares about that,” Heiden said. “All kids, they want to do their best on things that their teachers ask them to do.”

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