Pumped up for the MSA

Howard middle school rewards kids for test skills

March 14, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

At the mention of her name, the 12-year-old girl clutched her jean jacket, shrieked with glee and made her way to the back of the classroom to claim her prize.

The spoils: an envelope filled with gift certificates and coupons for pizza, movies, and doughnuts.

Alyssa Coates won the award after her name was picked from a group of students at Elkridge Landing Middle School in Howard County who had demonstrated good test-taking skills and preparation on the first day of the math portion of the Maryland School Assessment.

"Me?" the sixth-grader asked as she made her way to the school's assistant principal, Gina Stokes. "I feel so special."

Nearly 400,000 Maryland students in third through eighth grades are scheduled to take state-required tests in math and reading this week and next.

Students and staff have been discussing, analyzing and preparing for the tests for weeks and even months, and some schools, such as Elkridge Landing, have been weaving in incentives and contests to get their students excited for the big event.

Elkridge Landing kicked things off Friday when students attended half-hour MSA pep rallies at which test statistics and trends were discussed, and incentives such as the daily raffle were revealed.

"They are excited as you can get about taking the test," Elkridge Landing's principal, Thomas Saunders, said with a laugh. Saunders changed the school's approach to the MSA in 2004 in response to low test results.

Conferences were scheduled between guidance counselors and students who scored basic - below their grade level - on the assessments.

Last month the five-minute sessions involved about 100 students, a number that has dropped in recent years.

During the sessions guidance counselors tell students how close they are to being proficient - scoring at grade level. Testing tips, such as time management, are also shared.

"For most of them, they didn't know [their scores], and their parents didn't share that with them," said Saunders, who added that many of the same students are involved in academic intervention programs. "It is a fun conversation for them because they do not realize how close they are to being on grade level. The data is pretty interesting."

The MSA is a big deal, especially at the middle school level, where scores have lagged behind those at elementary schools.

"That's where students have been struggling the most with the test," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman with the state's Department of Education. "We believe we will be able to see the strides we have been making at the elementary school filter into the middle school."

The MSA is used to determine "adequate yearly progress," the yardstick under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Adequate progress is used to determine whether parents can transfer their children to higher-performing schools. It also can affect federal funding to schools.

Middle schools are also preparing their eighth-graders for high school, where they will take the High School Assessment, which is a graduation requirement for 2009 graduates.

In case pep rallies, one-on-one sessions with guidance counselors and after-school tutoring do not work, Elkridge Landing is also using old-fashion incentives.

Students have several opportunities to earn prizes for punctuality, preparation and attendance on MSA testing days.

Raffle-winner Alyssa said the chance to earn prizes makes a difference.

"It was fun," she said. "The test was kind of hard, but I pulled through. I got it. [The raffle] gets the kids excited. That makes the kids want to do the test more."

Students in homerooms and other testing groups are eligible for other prizes.

The grade level with the highest percentage of students who show up for the test on time earn additional outside recess time.

The Elkridge Landing staff discovered that students scored higher if they took the exam when scheduled instead of on a makeup day.

Darron Blair, an eighth-grader at Elkridge Landing, said the extra recess is a motivator.

"That will make them do almost anything," he said. "You win things for showing up and trying on tests. It doesn't get easier than that."

Rachel Slahetka, another eighth-grader, said students will urge each other to come to school on test days.

"We try to make sure we are sick the week before the test," she said.

The incentives seem to be working. Yesterday, 10 of the 684 students at Elkridge Landing were absent.

Since the school implemented the combination of the interventions, preparations and incentives, scores have steadily increased.

Last year, 86.1 percent of the school's eighth-graders scored at least proficient on the reading test, In 2003, that proportion was 78.4 percent. The percentage of students scoring advanced - above grade level - increased to 41.7 percent from 35.3 percent.

Last year, 81 percent of the school's eighth-graders scored at least proficient on the math test, up from 46.1 percent in 2003. The percentage of advanced students increased to 41.9 percent from 10.8 percent.

Thomas Shepley, the principal at Mount Washington Elementary School in Baltimore, used a dare to inspire his students.

He announced Monday that he would shave off his hair if 100 percent of students in any grade or subject area scored proficient or advanced.

"They laughed and said, `Oh, good,'" Shepley said. "I think it helps put it in more of a fun light. ... It takes the last-minute worries off and allows you to have fun."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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