Get your motor running

SMS students take an active approach to test preparation

Posted: Wednesday, April 12, 2006


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  Josh Harvey, Travis Nikolas and Dylon Story sip sports drink before starting one of the three days' testing. In addition to stress exercises and fluids, students also had a healthy snack before starting the test. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Jaci Lamborn uses her head to balance a book prior to hitting the books for real last week during the Standards Based Assessment Tests at Soldotna Middle School. Faculty at the school tried various stress relievers to prepare students for the federally mandated tests.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In the small gym at Soldotna Middle School, half the student body enjoys granola bars and juice and works on some fun activities involving numbers while principal Sharon Moock fires off questions requiring to students to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Some of the questions involve teachers’ ages and birth dates — much to the students’ delight.

Next door in the main gym, the other half of the student body competes as classes in a variety of activities — flipping shoes from their feet into a basket 20 feet away, racing with books balanced on their heads and working with a partner to carry a ball between their noggins without using their hands. Classic rock blasts from the sound system.

Later in the day, a school staff member — voted for by the students — will take a pie in the face. Moock also will be pied — she’s requested banana cream.

Just another day of standardized testing at Soldotna Middle School.

“Oxygenated blood and hydration — those are the two things the brain needs most,” said Karl Kircher, a teacher at the school, of the method behind the madness.

Indeed, after about 45 minutes of activities to kick off each day during last week’s Standards Based Assessments, students filed out of the gyms and back to their classrooms for a waiting bottle of water and a few minutes to settle in followed by 2 1/2 hours of testing.


Josh Harvey, Travis Nikolas and Dylon Story sip sports drink before starting one of the three days' testing. In addition to stress exercises and fluids, students also had a healthy snack before starting the test.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The high-stakes test are administered each year in school districts across the nation under the No Child Left Behind Act. The results of the tests, which cover reading, writing and math, are part of the formula used to determine adequate yearly progress, the accountability standards laid out under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“These tests are federally mandated to measure the gains students make at our schools, and a lot of federal funding hinges upon improvement,” said Sean Dusek, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s administrator for secondary education and assessment.

“The other really important thing is, this is the first time we’re testing every grade, three through 10, with a similar measure. It’s a really, really good tool to help teachers take a look at their instruction and see if students are meeting what the state of Alaska wants our kids to learn.”

Schools across the district are doing a variety of things to help students do their best on the exams, with snacks or breakfast before the test or 15 minutes to move around.

“Different schools are doing different things. Everybody is making a very big effort to reduce any kind of anxiety,” Dusek said.

But the staff at Soldotna Middle School has taken it to a whole new level.

“By making it a big hoopla, we’re validating the effort we’re asking them (the students) to put in. The other thing is, we want to create an atmosphere and environment that allows them to do their best,” Kircher said.

All the research, Kircher said, suggests that students who have had some exercise, a healthy snack and some water are bettered prepared at a physiological level to sit and focus on a big test. With a well-worn and highlighted copy of Eric Jensen’s book, “Teaching with the Brain in Mind,” as a reference, Kircher hatched an idea to get every student at Soldotna Middle School primed for the tests. While teachers have done activities on a small scale in the past, Kircher said his fellow staff members decided to give it a try on a school-wide scale last year.

“They ran plan very similar to this last year, and the building was very successful with testing, so (I said), ‘Yes, let’s do this again,’” said Moock, who is in her first year as principal at Soldotna Middle School.

Moock said Kircher was the driving force behind the pretesting activities.

“He’s passionate about this. Karl Kircher is a star. He will go way beyond reasonable expectations to help students,” Moock said. “The teachers in this building are of the same mind-set. (Kircher) has the imagination and the vision. If we can provide the resources, then this is the kind of opportunities we can create for students.”

Kircher said choreographing the movement of more than 550 students through the two gyms and getting them back to their classrooms for testing took some planning.

“It’s a big ballet to get all the kids moved to the small gym and to run all the activities. The staff does a great job to make it happen,” Kircher said.

Kircher also relied on the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association to provide snacks and to help keep score for each competition.

“They wanted impartial scorekeepers,” said PTSA secretary Diana Tice, noting that some of the teachers were very competitive.

Kircher said the staff’s enthusiasm is the key ingredient in making the activities successful. Teachers campaigned for votes to take a pie in the face — the winner (or is it loser?) also gets a gift certificate to a nice restaurant — and classes were awarded prizes for each mornings’ competitions. A dodge ball game against the school staff and a pizza party was promised to winning classes, though the pie-in-the-face seemed to be the big draw for most students.

Moock even volunteered to take a pie for the team should the school meet its goal of 95 percent attendance for testing, another component of adequate yearly progress.

The enthusiasm has rubbed off on the students, for whom the testing was almost an afterthought.

“This is fun. It’s a great way to get ready for testing and to relax,” said Briana VinZant, a seventh-grader at Soldotna Middle School. “The tests decide what (level classes) you’re going to be in, and a lot of kids get psyched out.

“This is more fun. It’s like celebrating with testing.”

And that’s the goal Kircher had in mind all along — instill in students the importance of the tests, but make the week a positive experience.

“You want to do all you can to validate the kids’ effort, and let them know it’s a big deal,” Kircher said. “How do you let them know it’s a big deal? By making it a big deal.”

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