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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Scheduling system passes test

NASHUA – High school students will once again be asked to give their test-taking brethren some space this week.

Both of the city’s public high schools will implement a modified schedule from Tuesday through Thursday, requiring juniors taking the New England Common Assessment Program to get to school on time at 7:20 a.m., while asking all other students to come in at 9:30.

Students will take the test while they have the building to themselves, then all students will begin their normal classes at 9:45 .

This is the third year the high schools have implemented the schedule, the idea being that it will give the students taking the high-stakes test the chance to focus without distraction.

Maureen O’Dea, director of guidance for the high schools, said students and parents for the most part have grown accustomed to the change in schedule once test time comes.

“I’d say freshmen are not as familiar with it because this is their first time at the high school,” she said. “Everyone else is definitely aware.”

Morning buses run twice on the testing days, once to pick up the juniors and then again to pick up all other students. Juniors are picked up at their normal times and all other students are picked up two and a half hours later than normal. Dismissal will still be at 2:03 p.m. Intensive-needs students will not be affected by the change.

Although students won’t miss any classes, there will be a reduction in classroom time. Once classes start on those days, students will go through their normal schedules, with classes running about 40 minutes. Classes are normally 90 minutes.

Going simply by test results, the practice seems to be working. In 2007, the year before the modified schedule was implemented, 57 percent of students were proficient in reading, 25 percent were proficient in math and 27 percent were proficient in writing. In 2009, the second year of the schedule, those numbers increased to 73 percent in reading, 28 percent in math and 52 percent in writing.

O’Dea said there are several advantages to the modified schedule. Not only does it give the juniors a chance to focus on the test, but O’Dea points out it also means they won’t be missing classes by having to be pulled out in the middle of the day.

“This way, juniors aren’t taking a double hit by having them take the test and then having to make up all this work,” O’Dea said.

Delaying the start of school also frees up teachers to administer the test, she said.

There are typically some students who come to the school at the normal time, either because they didn’t know about the change or other transportation issues, but O’Dea said those students are allowed to stay in the cafeteria until the school day begins. O’Dea said the number is usually pretty low, but there would be someone in the cafeteria to watch the students.

No Child Left Behind requires students in grades 3-8 and 11 to be tested in math and reading. The testing window for New Hampshire’s NECAP began Friday and ends Oct. 22. School districts must have their tests ready to be picked up by Oct. 25. The results are used to measure whether schools are making “Adequate Yearly Progress.” Those that don’t are labeled as being “in need of improvement.”

As Superintendent Mark Conrad points out, the number of schools falling into the needing improvement category continues to rise, as the benchmarks for making AYP continue to ratchet up every other year. By 2014, all students in New Hampshire must be proficient in math and reading, a provision of the No Child Left Behind law. Thirteen of the city’s 17 schools are currently “in need of improvement,” as is the district as a whole.

Conrad said to prepare for the test, schools take a variety of approaches. For example, schools across the city will be providing breakfast for students on assessment days to make sure they’re able to concentrate on the test. Schools have also been working with students to make sure they’re familiar with the format of the questions they’ll see on the NECAP, he said.

“For example, most students will have had practice with constructed-response items,” Conrad said. “But it’s done in a way so there is a value of learning in the process of taking the test.”

Although the NECAP is an important test, Conrad said the long turnaround for the results makes it difficult to use them in a way to change instruction to meet the needs of the students. The district does several other types of testing that allow for quick response to struggling learners, he said.

“Although we want our students to do well, our focus is on improving instruction,” Conrad said.

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