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No Child Left Behind changes state’s school testing

This article states that test questions cost $1,000 each to develop.

By Melanie Asmar

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7, 2005

No Child Left Behind Act has created federal standards for testing that New Hampshire schools must now adjust to. The new tests, called New England Common Assessment Program, will start to be administered in the fall.

• All children in grades three through eight will be tested on reading and math skills.
• Fifth- and eighth-graders’ writing abilities will be assessed.
• Fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders will be tested in science.

This fall, the state will change the way it tests schoolchildren to see if they’re keeping up with the federal standards of No Child Left Behind. All children in grades three through eight will be evaluated on their reading and math skills.

Before No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002, New Hampshire tested kids three times: in third, sixth and 10th grades. But the new law ramped up the requirements. In October, the state will administer new tests in six grades and also assess students’ writing abilities in fifth and eighth grade.

The new tests, called the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, were developed in conjunction with Vermont and Rhode Island in an effort to save money. Writing the tests can be expensive, said Tim Kurtz, director of assessment at the state Department of Education. By working with two other states, officials believe New Hampshire will save about $1 million a year.

Next May, 10th-grade students will take the old test, the New Hampshire Educational Improvement and Assessment Program, when the state has traditionally given all the tests. Kurtz said developing new tests for high schoolers takes more time because there’s less consensus on what they should know. Curriculum at that level greatly depends on whether the students are bound for college or a vocational program, he said.

The high school NECAP test will be ready for the 2007-08 school year, Kurtz said, when it will be given to 11th-graders in the fall instead of to 10th-graders in the spring. In May 2008, the state will also test fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders in science, another requirement of No Child Left Behind.

The federal law also puts sanctions on schools whose students do not make what it calls “adequate yearly progress,” meaning a certain percentage do not show that they know the material. If the scores are low two years in a row, for example, parents can choose to send their kids to another school within the district for free.

Last August, test results from the 2003-04 school year showed that 72 of New Hampshire’s schools were “in need of improvement,” meaning they failed to make adequate yearly progress twice. Next month, state officials will release scores from the tests 10th-graders took in May. But there won’t be any results from elementary or middle school kids because they weren’t tested this year. Education officials decided to wait until the new NECAP tests are rolled out this fall.

The idea for the new NECAP tests was born shortly after No Child Left Behind. Education officials from several New England states got together to see if they could collaborate on developing more stringent tests, Kurtz said. But some, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, already tested students in every grade and didn’t need as much help.

In the end, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island were left. While each stood to save some cash from the partnership (each test question costs about $1,000 to develop, Kurtz said), it also meant that top education officials from all three states had to agree on which skills students should have mastered in which grade – and what kinds of questions should be on the test.

“It became clear fairly early that what we established as our wildest dream would be to give the same test,” said Kurtz, who was part of the team from New Hampshire.

What came out of the joint venture was a set of benchmarks called the Grade-Level Expectations, which outline what students should know and when. The expectations also serve as a guideline of what will be on the statewide tests.

Before this year, New Hampshire had a trio of “frameworks” that listed, briefly, what students should know at the end of third, sixth and 10th grades. The expectations, in line with No Child Left Behind, are much more in depth. There are two sets – one for reading and one for math – for grades two through eight. And teachers can compare them to see what students were supposed to learn the year before or what they’ll be taught next year.

For example, the math expectations for second grade say kids should understand how to add and subtract numbers from zero to 199. In third grade, the expectation jumps to numbers between zero and 999.

Under the new testing system, students will also be tracked by identification numbers instead of by name. The numbers will make it easier for officials to see how individual kids are progressing over time. Using names proved tricky in the past because sometimes students would label their test with their full name, like Jennifer, but other times use a nickname, like Jen, Kurtz said.

Plus, having students’ vital information, such as gender and race, attached to their identification number will make testing quicker, officials said, as teachers will no longer have to fill out extra paperwork.

And the identification numbers open up the possibility of changing the way New Hampshire assesses schools’ progress. Instead of comparing this year’s third-graders to last year’s third-graders, officials could more easily compare this year’s third-grade class to last year’s second-grade class, Kurtz said, an adjustment school districts have wished for since the dawn of No Child Left Behind.

One way the new tests will definitely change the assessment process is that schools will now be looking back at what students learned, or didn’t learn, in the grade before rather than in the grade they’re finishing up, Kurtz said. For example, if a fifth-grader who just moved to the middle school does poorly on the test in the fall, officials will critique his education at the elementary school the previous year.

Raw scores from the new NECAP tests taken in the fall should be ready by the winter, officials said, though they won’t be evaluated to see if progress was made until the spring. The process will be slower this year because the three states still have to come up with a universal way to present the results.

“The first year is always difficult,” Kurtz said.

— Melanie Asmar
Nashua Telegraph


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