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Staff file photo by Don Himsel A student takes a NECAP test in a Nashua school in October of 2005.
Monday, October 5, 2009

Once again, city’s pupils preparing for big test

NASHUA – As students fill in those tiny bubbles with their Number Two pencils, they will once again begin answering the larger question of whether their schools are meeting state benchmarks.

This month, schools around the state will be taking part in the New England Common Assessment Program, also known as the NECAP, which tests students in grades 3 through 11 in math and reading. Students in grades 5, 8 and 11 are also tested in writing. Testing begins Tuesday in Nashua.

Brian Cochrane, Nashua’s director of accountability and assessment, said schools have gotten used to the pattern of administering the NECAP, which began in 2004.

“Administratively, we’ve gotten much better at it over time,” said Cochrane. “By and large, we’ve just been far more proactive in the use of data and the use of collaborative teams.”

The NECAP is used to comply with the testing and accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act of 2002. The scores are used to measure student progress. Benchmarks are raised every other year, to the point where all students are required to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

At the high schools, Nashua will once again use a modified schedule in an attempt to give 11th graders a relaxed environment to take their tests. From Tuesday through Thursday, while all other high school students don’t have to be to school until 9:30, juniors will still have to report at the normal time, 7:20. Buses will run twice, once at the normal time to pick up juniors and again two and a half hours later to pick up all other students. Intensive needs special education students will still be picked up at the normal time. As a whole, Nashua failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading last year. It was the district’s fourth year as a district “in need of improvement” for poor reading scores, meaning it would have to implement a corrective action plan developed with the state.

There were some bright spots, however. Mount Pleasant Elementary School made adequate progress in reading, meaning it avoided having to implement a restructuring plan. If it makes enough progress in reading again this year, it will get off the list of schools “in need of improvement.” Heading into this round of testing, 11 of Nashua’s 17 schools are “in need of improvement.” Although the testing window starts Tuesday, each school has set up its own schedule, Cochrane said. Some schools are spreading testing out over a week or longer. Cochrane said parents should contact their school if they are unsure of when the tests are being administered. The testing window ends Oct. 22.

Cochrane said schools have become better at using the data from the tests in the classroom on a regular basis to try and improve performance. Each school has a NECAP facilitator who is updated on any changes to the test, he said.

Cochrane said schools have also become more adept at using the accommodations that are allowed under the guidelines for testing.

“The more we can create a testing environment that mirrors the regular classroom environment, the more kids will be relaxed and be able to focus,” he said. The school district is encouraging parents to make sure their children get a good night’s sleep before testing, eat a healthy breakfast that morning and arrive at school on time.

Schools won’t find out until the spring whether students did well enough to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

This could be the final round of testing in New Hampshire under the current requirements outlined in No Child Left Behind. With a new president in office and reauthorization of the act overdue, a change to law – both in name and structure – is likely to happen within the next year.

In a speech last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that while the law has helped to expose the achievement gap in schools, it puts too much weight on standardized tests, unfairly labels schools as failures and doesn’t take into account student growth over a period of time.

“But the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards,” Duncan said. “In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not.”

But that doesn’t mean testing will be wiped away completely. Duncan said the next version of the law should use tests that better measure student learning and should build an accountability system that measures academic growth, instead of comparing different groups of students against one another.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.