04/16/04 — State schools seek to coax students to take tests

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State schools seek to coax students to take tests

By Staff and Wire
Published in News on April 16, 2004 1:58 PM

From AP and staff reports

North Carolina educators are turning to bribes and threats to get high school students to participate in government-mandated performance tests.

The tests given to 10th-graders this month measure whether their schools meet performance levels in the federal No Child Left Behind law. Last year, the first year the law was in force, one of every three high schools in the state met the standard.

The government requires 95 percent participation from each school's 10th-graders and within groups of those students identified by race, poverty and educational disabilities. Last year, schools had a hard time getting enough students to participate.

Now educators are hoping that new incentives or consequences will motivate students not only to take the test, but try hard -- and improve their school's showing as a result.

"This is something that is required by the federal government, but it doesn't mean anything to the kids," said Dana King, principal of Millbrook High School in Raleigh. "It's what the public will use to decide how good a school we are. And if that's what they're using as a measure, I want it to reflect what's happening here."

Students in Wake County will get an extra point added to their fourth-quarter grade point average for every class just for taking the test. So a student who has earned a 92 average in English would receive a 93, the difference between a B and an A.

Students would get two points added to the grade average in each class for passing the two-part test in both reading and math, which could mean the difference between passing and failing.

"A lot of people might need those extra points," said Marquise Moore, a sophomore at Millbrook High. "I think a lot of students will take it more seriously."

The tests will be given in Wayne County public schools on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability, said there were problems last year with students not taking the test very seriously, because "there's nothing in it for them." It is unlike some standardized tests, which count for 25 percent of the student's grade in a course.

He said that he is unaware of what individual high schools are doing to entice students to excel on the tests, but nothing is being done centrally by the school system.

"I know the staff is taking it seriously," he said. "It's the only measure that high schools use for No Child Left Behind."

McFadden said the controversy over the test is more about its content than resistance to raising the standards.

"On the 10th grade test there's some geometry, which most 10th-graders take," he said. "But it's not required to take geometry to get a high school diploma.

"I think everybody agrees it's time to raise the standard. The concern is mainly over requiring passing a test that has course material that isn't required."

Last year, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools weren't successful with financial incentives such as reduced parking fees and discounted passes to sporting events for students who took the tests.

This year, 10th-graders must pass the test to advance to the 11th grade. Students who fail will get extra chances before the end of the school year.

"Kids who just blow it off will have to go to summer school," said Dave Thaden, principal of East Chapel Hill High School.

He said some students were nonchalant about the test last year, seeing it as a chance "to Christmas-tree an answer sheet" -- fill in multiple-choice boxes in a pattern -- rather than make a legitimate effort to answer questions.

No Child Left Behind requires that students be tested in reading and math at some point in high school but does not specify the test. State education leaders settled on the comprehensive test, which was developed in the 1990s to measure the performance of high schools under the state's ABCs accountability system.

"The state put us in an untenable position," Thaden said. "They decided to use a measure that has no relevance for students."

Most high schools in North Carolina aren't subject to penalties under the federal law because few receive federal Title I funds for low-income students. Still, school leaders say they want their schools to be considered successful. Wayne County, however, has several schools that receive federal money.

"You want to look good," said Kathy Chontos, principal of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. "It's a matter of making sure that this measurement accurately reflects what you are doing."