Putting kids to the test

If you have a child in public school, don’t plan any surprise visits this week.

Schools are on ISAT lockdown.

Both Champaign and Urbana schools have “no visitor” policies this week. Classroom doors are kept shut and hallways quiet.

It’s an effort to keep children focused as they take the all-important Illinois Standards Achievement Tests.

The tests measure student progress in grades three through eight relative to state learning standards in math, science, reading and writing. The idea is to give parents, teachers and schools one measure of student learning and school performance, according to the state.

Opinions on ISATs are divided because the results carry such weight — schools that fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (the dreaded AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act can face sanctions. Some say the tests make schools accountable. Others complain the emphasis on testing has forced schools to change their curriculum and “teach to the test.”

Regardless, ISATs are a fact of life, and schools have adopted some creative strategies to motivate students and keep them happy during test week.

— One we can all relate to: food. After all, test anxiety can wring a lot out of you (think about your last driver’s exam).  And good nutrition is essential for brain power.

Both districts provide money to buy healthy snacks for the test-takers — granola bars, fruit, whole wheat Chex mix, cheese and crackers, etc.

Some schools take it a step further. Westview Elementary in Champaign is starting each day this week with a breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, bagels and cream cheese and juice. At Kenwood Elementary, parents and staff members are cooking a full breakfast for third, fourth and fifth-grade students every morning, complete with scrambled eggs, toast, milk, fruit and orange juice.

— Aromatherapy. Candy and gum are typically no-nos in the classroom (problems with ABC gum, if you know what I mean), but schools are handing out peppermints and spearmint gum for the tests. Research shows they can help students concentrate, says Trudy Walters, principal at Barkstall Elementary School. Mint helps clear your mind, “and when you have a clear mind you relax.”

— Help from the younger set. Children in primary grades, who don’t take ISATs, made “morale boosters” for the older students. At Kenwood, they cut out tiny pants and stuck a pack of Smarties on top (Smartie Pants, get it?). At Westview, primary students made streamers to decorate the lockers of their “study buddies” in upper grades.

— Plenty of ZZZs. Schools encouraged students to go to bed on time and get a good night’s rest. Kenwood sent letters home asking families to get organized the night before, “so things are not chaotic in the morning and they can come to school calm and collected,” says Kenwood Principal Lisa Geren.

I guess our “Hurry up! Did you grab your lunch? We’re late!” routine isn’t ideal.

— Keep the blood flowing (in a nonviolent way). Some schools provide extra recess during test week. In Champaign, every school has to submit a testing plan to Judy Wiegand, director of secondary education and assessment, “just to make sure that the students are being provided enough breaks during the day,” she says. “It’s important to get out and move around.

“We know it’s hard on the kids. It’s a lot of pressure, a high-stakes test. We want to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible.”

The tests are taken over five days. Westview Principal Trevor Nadrozny says he tries to schedule them so students have, at most, two 50-minute tests per day.

In fact, despite all the preparations, principals say a low-key approach works best. In past years Westview held motivational rallies, but “we’ve kind of shied away from that in the last five years. It just seems like that puts stress onto the kids,” Nadrozny says.

Now, he might stop by classrooms to wish students luck and ask them to do their best. His message is simply, “We know you can do it. You’ve prepared all year.”

“Clearly it’s important that we do well. It’s not going to help my staff if I’m really stressing them out,” Nadrozny says, taking a deep breath. “So you have to be really relaxed and know you’ve done everything you can. I think we have.”

At Barkstall, teachers focus all year on educating students to be critical thinkers and strong writers, Walters says. The school’s slogan for this year is “I SAT, I thought, I worked, I met.”

“This is just what we do every day,’” she says.

Adds Kenwood’s Geren, “We try to tell the students this is just a piece of their school. It doesn’t define who they are. It just happens to be a big piece.”

Even after the tests are over, “we’re not done,” she says. “We’re still in school. We still have a mission.”

My son is apparently not too stressed. After school Friday, he said, “All right, ISATS next week! No homework!”

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth can be reached at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter.com/@jawurth.

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