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Demopolis schools gear up for tests

U.S. Jones Elementary and Demopolis Middle School have once again reached one of the most critical times of the school year: the testing season.

Beginning next Tuesday and stretching across five days in two different weeks, all Demopolis students in grades 3 through 8 will take the Stanford Achievement Test (or SAT-10), an extended standardized examination mandated by state and federal law. Only a few days afterwards, the students will start the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Tests required by the Alabama state Board of Education.

Although the tests are used by the state to determine whether the school meets the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals established by the No Child Left Behind act, Demopolis testing coordinator Gina Johnston says that the primary concern in administering the tests isn’t to jump through government hoops, but to help the schools better educate their students.

“The individual child is our number-one priority,” Johnston says. “What it’s all about is assessing the child and identifying particular areas that need to have more emphasis and concentration…if an intervention is needed, we will work with the child until they reach their appropriate grade level. We will make the change to have success with that child.”

That intervention is done in several ways, primarily through after-school programs that offer additional tutoring in the necessary subjects. Demopolis Middle School principal Clarence Jackson said that seeing the improvement in these students was an immensely satisfying experience.

“To see a student go up just one stanine [a performance level based on percentiles], to see somebody go from stanine two to stanine three in a single year is great,” he said. “If they go up two or three stanines in a year, though, that’s awesome.”

In addition to the help the tests offer individual students, they also help the school at large, by identifying areas in which the schools’ educational strategies aren’t working as well as they should.

“That’s where you go back and look at the curriculum,” Johnston says, “and examine the item specifications in the course of study, making sure they’re effective.”

Because the tests are used to evaluate the schools’ performance in the classroom as well as the student’s, Demopolis’s teachers devote little time to “teaching the test.”

“The state provides practice tests,” Johnston says, “but that’s about all we do leading up to the test…preparation for the test begins on Day One of the school year. We want them ready to do math and know the skills needed for continuing their education.”

Of course, getting the school a good grade on its report card isn’t nearly as important to students as the grades on their own report card, which the tests do not impact at all. So, the question becomes, how should the schools get students to take the test seriously?

“We have an ongoing incentive,” explains Jackson,” where students can earn an exemption from a final exam [based on achieved stanines]. Now they’re thinking, ‘If I can get out of three tests…’ They can either exempt a test here or, if they’re in the eighth-grade, they receive a certificate they can take over as a ninth-grader and be exempt from a test there.”

“The other schools have pep rallies and that sort of thing, but we think that’s a little elementary for our students.”

Of course, that’s not to say a pep rally wouldn’t be fun. Although U.S. Jones principal Dr. Tony Speegle could not be reached for confirmation, reportedly a group of teachers at U.S. Jones have been practicing a special dance to be unveiled at an assembly Monday, in order to help inspire students to do their best on the exam.

Whether it’s dances or test exemptions or just plain good teaching, no one at Demopolis is expecting anything less than success when the scores are returned.

“I’m looking for that improvement we’ve been preparing for,” Jackson said.