A few of Kristen Jacksa’s fifth-period English students shyly raised their hands one day last week admitting they hadn’t finished a timed essay they’d taken the day before.
The West Ashley Middle School teacher applauded those students as “brave souls,” saying they weren’t alone. About 75 percent of the class didn’t finish.
“It’s hard,” Jacksa told the sixth-graders with a reassuring tone. “You don’t need to be embarrassed about it.”
Anxiety is rising among students and teachers across South Carolina as the clock ticks down to the state’s first timed standardized tests that public school students will take April 28-30. Jacksa’s students took their first practice writing test last week when they had just 30 minutes to finish.
The day after the practice test T.J. Potter and his classmates huddled over their notebooks excitedly discussing how it went. And the chief thing on their minds was how much — or how little — time they had to finish.
“It was challenging,” Potter said.
“It’s hard rationing the time,” added student Carmen Del Mastro.
At Burns Elementary School in North Charleston, students have been practicing timed activities for months. On Friday, the kids in Nichole Bryant’s class stretched and shimmied during a brief break between taking timed practice tests.
Bryant said some children are finishing the tests, some aren’t. But with four timed tests looming, they all feel the pressure.
The fourth-grade teacher is focused on positive reinforcement and rewards for her students, along with “a lot of comforting.”
“It’s a little bit stressful,” said student Ryan Bailey. “I can finish it in one hour, not thirty minutes.”
On Friday, however, Bailey finished before the timer chimed.
“I’m done,” she declared.
The new ACT Aspire test is a standardized test offered through the national testing company ACT Inc., most commonly known for its college entrance exam.
The state awarded a contract to ACT last year for new tests in English and math, after the General Assembly passed legislation pulling out of the Common Core State Standards and a related standardized test.
Public school students across the Palmetto state in grades 3-8 will take the new timed tests in English, writing, reading and math. Students have 30 minutes to complete a writing assignment and 60 minutes for reading. They get 30-35 minutes for English and 55-65 minutes for math depending on their grade.
The Palmetto Assessment of State Standards test for science and social studies will not change or be timed.
It’s the first time students are facing timed standardized tests, said Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association, which contradicts how teachers have previously coached students to tackle such exams.
“We have been teaching students strategies to gather their thoughts before finalizing writing or processes to use to take their time and not to rush,” Hampton said. “And students are going to have to think completely differently.”
State agencies and organizations are acutely aware of the pressure teachers and students are feeling about the new tests and many groups, including the state Department of Education, have launched information campaigns.
Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman appeared on ETV’s show “Carolina Classrooms” in February and her department has held a social media campaign called TestReadySC. And later this month the Department of Education is launching a series of public service announcements. The department also has detailed information about the new tests on its website.
“Transitioning to new tests is always a challenge,” said Dino Teppara, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Teppara said the department wants to provide as much resources and information to teachers and parents to “ensure the transition is successful.”
‘We’re all learning’
Schools in the Charleston County School District have been ramping up with timed activities since word came in November that the new tests would be timed. Katherine Lewis, the school district’s director of school climate, and Annette Hilton, a curriculum specialist with the school district, have been working closely with five middle schools in North Charleston, Johns Island and West Ashley, including West Ashley Middle, to make sure teachers are using the right strategies to motivate students.
The key, Lewis said, is for students to think about each question individually.
“Just because you don’t know three of them doesn’t mean you won’t know the next three,” she said.
Hilton has been coaching teachers to do short timed exercises before ramping up to the full amount of time for each test.
Teachers are doing their best to prepare students, Hilton said, but the timed element, particularly for the 60-minute reading test, will be tough.
“I’m not sure how many will complete (the reading test) in one hour,” she said.
But that’s OK.
“All we want from the teachers and our students is to do the best they can do,” she said. “We have told them this is the first year — we’re all learning.”
But all the practice and preparation in the world will likely not be enough to avoid a drop in scores — something education experts say is to be expected.
Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it’s “fairly common” for states to experience a drop in students’ standardized test scores after they change tests or education standards.
A host of states have experienced a dip in test scores in recent years when they switched to new tests and standards, including North Carolina, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama — the first state to use the ACT Aspire test.
“It doesn’t mean the students have gotten dumber, it just means you’ve changed the assessment program,” Cizek said. “It just takes a while for people to adjust to that new set of expectations.”
The problem for South Carolina is that the state will use a new set of state developed standards for math and English next school year instead of the Common Core State Standards. And because of issues over the contract with ACT, it’s unclear whether or not students will take the ACT Aspire test again next year.
All that change creates an apples to oranges comparison from one school year to the next.
“It affects our ability to monitor progress based on the previous year’s data because we keep changing,” said University of South Carolina education professor Ed Dickey, who was involved in a panel that reviewed the new math standards. “It’s going to be a while before we can draw conclusions as to whether our students are making progress.”
At Burns Elementary, Principal Lynn Owings and her teachers are working hard to make sure students are ready for the new test, saying “it’s an opportunity to see where children are at a given point in time.”
But they aren’t getting too bogged down in the outcome of a single test.
“We work hard here to teach children, not to teach to the test,” she said.
Math coach Jacquie Hughes said she’s been working with math teachers on how to help students work efficiently through problems without worrying about how quickly they can answer them.
And even if the test is different next year, their efforts aren’t wasted.
“It’s going to be very similar regardless, so whether we have this test or another test like this we’re preparing for this level of rigor,” Hughes said.
West Ashley Middle Principal LaCarma Brown-McMillan said just because the ACT Aspire test is new that isn’t an excuse for students not to do their best.
“We take it very seriously regardless of whether it’s the first year or the second year,” said Brown-McMillan.
And Brown-McMillan’s practical approach to testing extends to the uncertainties that lie ahead with the potential for a new test next year.
“Things change in life all the time and we have to be flexible,” she said.
In the mean time, Jacksa has made the ACT Aspire tests something to be worthy of the students efforts, teaching them what it means to aspire.
As they talked about the test, her students chanted their class slogan: “We aspire to achieve excellence!”
Jacksa said her students are steadily inching closer to being ready.
“We’re not panicking at all,” she said.
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.