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April 19, 2014

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One goof — now schools’ reputations are at stake

Wrong test date means lost time, scramble for teachers, kids districtwide

At stake is each school’s academic standing in the eyes of the state and federal education departments.

The district’s official calendar, put out at the start of the academic year, had the wrong dates for the test that is used to determine whether students have made the “adequate yearly progress” required by federal law. The mistake went unnoticed until earlier this month, when state education officials brought it to the district’s attention.

Elementary and middle school principals were notified Feb. 5 that all answer sheets for the test have to be in by March 25. They had been told the deadline was April 25.

Making the testing period more problematic is spring break, March 15-24, effectively rendering the nine days leading up to the deadline useless.

Sue Daellenbach, testing director for the district, said she takes the blame for the mistake. “It was a human error,” she said. “A lot of people dropped the ball, but ultimately it’s my responsibility.”

It has left many schools scrambling to try to make time for more classroom instruction, after-school tutoring sessions and test preparation. That includes postponing field trips as well as pushing aside in-school activities for Nevada Reading Week, which was set to begin Feb. 21.

Third graders at Henderson’s Nate Mack Elementary School, for example, will have to hit the books instead of visiting the McCool Science Center at Frank Lamping Elementary School, said Principal Nancy Heavey.

Heavey recalls thinking the test period was a little later than usual when she first marked it on her calendar in the fall.

State law requires the tests to be given after 120 days of instruction, with 10 days’ leeway on either end of the range.

“I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got a little extra time,’ ” Heavey said Thursday. “I didn’t go back and count the number of days, which a lot of us are kicking ourselves for now. If we had, we would have caught this a lot earlier.”

Heavey had planned to use the “extra” time to her students’ advantage. A few weeks ago she had her third, fourth and fifth grade teachers spent a day with a test preparation consultant. Together they “looked at specific students, specific state standards and how to use the time from now until the test to make sure kids had the skills,” Heavey said. “Three days later we found out about the new schedule and went, ‘Oh, man.’ ”

The pressure on teachers to have their students make adequate progress is already high enough without the added burden of losing a month’s instructional time, said Mary Ella Holloway, president of the Clark County Education Association. She has heard from teachers who say their game plans for the academic year have been left in the dust.

“Because of the mistake, there may be some areas and skills that won’t be covered in time for the testing,” Holloway said. “That might impact the scores.”

Schools that fail to make adequate progress for two consecutive years are labeled “in need of improvement,” while strong performance earns the title of “high achieving” or even “exemplary.” With each successive year on the “needs improvement” list a school faces increased sanctions that can include the removal of the principal.

J. Harold Brinley Middle School Principal Sharon Beatty is scheduling extracurricular workshops to help prepare her students for the earlier testing dates. Teachers will also do what they can to squeeze a few more lessons into the instructional day. The good news is that with testing out of the way earlier, teachers will have more time after spring break to look at individual student performance and delve deeper into the curriculum, Beatty said.

“It was an unfortunate error, but not anything we can’t live with,” she said.

At Lied Middle School it’s business as usual, said Principal Kimberly Bauman. Other than pushing back Nevada Reading Week activities, “everything is going on as normal,” Bauman said. “We have been focused all year long. We’re ready, 100 percent.”

But plenty of other educators are very worried about the effect of the test date mix-up, said Bill Hanlon, who runs the Regional Professional Development Center, created by the Legislature to provide teacher training. He has been fielding phone calls from worried teachers.

“But my belief on these tests has always been if you do your job all along, and teach your curriculum, everything else works itself out in the end,” he said.

Because the tests are given before the end of the academic year, it’s to be expected that some material won’t have been covered in depth yet, Hanlon said. He discourages teachers from “jumping ahead” to try to maximize the chances that their students will answer a few extra questions correctly.

“That’s the worst kind of teaching to the test,” Hanlon said. “There’s community pressure to have high scores. But I’d rather see high scores maintained over time, rather than a one-time spike.”

Emily Richmond can be reached at 259-8829 or at emily@lasvegass[email protected]

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