Va. Centers Help Teachers Gear Up for Exams

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It's hardly the norm to see algebra teachers congregating in the school library here on a gorgeous Saturday morning debating how to best convey the meaning of x+3y=5 to their mathematically challenged students.

But the 15 teachers gathered in this rural town for a state-sponsored tutorial say this is hardly a normal month for Virginia schools.

This week and next, tens of thousands of students in Virginia's 1,800 public schools will sit for the second round of high-stakes tests based on the state's rigorous Standards of Learning. These algebra teachers say they don't mind cramming on a weekend if their efforts add up to better test scores for their students this time around.

Nearly every school in the state--97 percent--flunked the first round of the tests administered last spring. The tests were given to 3rd, 5th, and 8th graders, and all high school students. ("Massive Failure Rates on New Tests Daze Va.," Jan. 20, 1999.)

Only 40 percent of the high school students who took the Algebra 1 exam passed, one of the worst results on any subject. That's a showing state leaders like Peter Hughes, who organized this weekend review session, don't want to see repeated.

"A lot of curriculum work is real grunt work. You have to get in and dig," said Mr. Hughes, a director of one of the state's new Best Practice Centers. "We have to put our heads together and make this work," he said.

By 2004, students must pass a battery of state tests in four subject areas in order to graduate. Under the state's accountability plan, a school will lose its accreditation unless 70 percent of its students pass the tests in four areas by 2007.

Virginia's three Best Practice Centers--offshoots of the state education department--were launched last fall as regional hubs to help teachers and administrators share teaching strategies, write standards-based lesson plans, and analyze test scores to help improve student performance.

Staffed by about 15 education department employees and located in less populous areas around the state, the three centers field dozens of calls from local educators each week. To respond to far-flung requests and advertise their presence, many of the centers' workers log hundreds of miles in visits to schools each month.

Innovative Setup

Last month, Mr. Hughes and his colleagues drove three hours from the center in Harrisonburg to speak to educators in the town of Marion about improving earth-science instruction. And, earlier this month, the center based in Lynchburg was busy fine-tuning a computer system that will allow teachers in more than 700 rural schools to conduct professional-development seminars using newly installed two-way video technology at high schools.

And the staff at the center in Marion in southern Virginia, which joined the Harrisonburg-based staff at the earth-science instruction session, recently gave teachers in low-performing rural schools a crash course to help them familiarize students with anxiety-rich test-taking situations.

"We are not knights on white horses," Mr. Hughes said, "but our purpose is to help."

More help is on the way. The Virginia legislature recently approved spending $2.6 million in fiscal 2000 for five additional centers around the state, slated to open in September. Overall, the state will spend $3.2 million on all eight centers in the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Other states have set up state-sponsored education centers that offer professional development for teachers. Some states, such as Maryland and North Carolina, dispatch crisis teams on occasion to assist low-performing schools.

But Virginia seems to be the only state that has set up permanent, decentralized centers devoted year round to improving student performance on standards-based tests.

"This is what schools are yearning for," said Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve Inc., a nonprofit school reform group based in Cambridge, Mass., that was started by state governors and business leaders. "Letting the best work bubble up from schools, rather than having the state tell [schools] from on high that this is the way to do things, is a model every state could benefit from," he argued.

Breaking the Mold

Sharing knowledge comes easily to Dorinda Pinkerton, an algebra teacher in central Virginia's Albemarle County. At the recent seminar in the school library in Madison, a small town in north central Virginia, she tells her colleagues they need to think outside the traditional algebraic box.

"You all have to change your ways," Ms. Pinkerton says. "We have to get outside our comfort zone and try."

Ms. Pinkerton's enthusiasm is a credit in part to Maureen Hijar, the state's mathematics-curriculum specialist, who is demonstrating a teaching technique that Ms. Pinkerton has embraced for years.

Ms. Hijar places green, red, and white tile pieces on an overhead projector to illustrate an equation with integers. Though visual aids are usually staples of middle school math, Ms. Hijar says that many high school students need such visual cues to comprehend concepts that may seem basic to other students. "Algebra is abstract to start with. For some students, they need a picture to hang onto in order to understand," Ms. Hijar says.

Beyond teaching techniques, Ms. Hijar also has a useful tidbit about test-taking procedures to impart: Students, she says, can use graph paper on the exams. Many of the teachers say their students used blank paper on last year's tests and had to pencil in the graphs, which wasted precious time.

Though the teachers went away full of ideas, few said they were confident that a majority of their students would pass the algebra test this month. Many said they wished the state would give them more time at the end of the school year for instruction instead of scheduling the exams in May. Some complained that their current crop of high school students aren't taking the new tests seriously enough because they aren't hinged to graduation.

Tom Campbell, the superintendent of the 1,900-student Madison County public schools, said he supports the state's efforts to provide opportunities to share information, because "teachers listen to other teachers."

But Mr. Campbell said he wished the state didn't put so much emphasis on the fact-laden tests. "Some kids along the way who don't meet the benchmark are going to drop out," he said.

Joe King, the director of the Harrisonburg Best Practice Center, said changing attitudes about education and raising expectations takes time. "You have to go slow with these folks," said Mr King, a former principal. "This is a whole new ballgame for them."

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 14-15

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Va. Centers Help Teachers Gear Up for Exams
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