With how students feel about test-taking, it is perhaps appropriate that Arizona’s biggest test – AIMS – is a four-letter word. But for the Maricopa Unified School District, a new train of thought in testing students has students excited to complete the exam and administrators receiving national acclaim for the results.
MUSD initiated the Children’s Progress Academic Assessment for Early Childhood last year as the first district in Arizona to use the uniquely designed test. The computer-based, interactive exam analyzes skill sets for students as young as 3 and is used in MUSD classrooms for pre-kindergarten classes up to third grade.
The national acclaim came in a mention in the October edition of District Administration magazine from MUSD’s willingness to reach out to its neighbors, becoming the first district in the country to test Native American students. Last year, more than three dozen pre-kindergarten-aged students from the Ak-Chin Indian Community were assessed using the academic assessment.
The program is not new to MUSD Superintendent John Flores, who brought the Columbia University-founded project to Maricopa after piloting the program at his previous district in East Chicago, Ind. He said the goal of providing such a program is to better prepare students to achieve in their time in school.
“When children come to school, a lot of the time they don’t have the basic skill development to perform adequately at that (first-year) level,” Flores said. “We want to do what we can to help them succeed. This program was a breath of fresh air.”
No bubble sheets here
One of the key elements that makes this test both unique and successful, said Children’s Progress sales and training associate Eric Nelson, is the usage of interactive, colorful computer programs to conduct the testing.
“It’s student to computer with the kids using headphones, where they are going to be engaged and having fun with it. For that age, if its hard-core, with pencil and paper, you’re going to lose them,” he said. “We fill a niche in an area where there’s not a lot of formal assessment. Teachers usually rely on observational assessment.”
While Nelson likened the test to an educational video game, Krista Keesling, MUSD’s director of multiple projects, said the students usually don’t think of the Children’s Progress assessments as tests.
“Really, our students don’t even know they are taking an assessment because it is fun and not a pencil and paper test,” she said.
Testing through the Children’s Progress exams starts each grade level on the same question, but allows them to take different paths based on whether they can answer the question correctly the first time, with a prompted hint or if they miss it still after the hint. The process allows a 20- to 30-minute test to analyze a number of different language arts and math areas to measure whether students are above, below or meeting the state standard.
“Assessment is a hot topic... but it is a necessary evil,” Nelson, a former teacher, said. “School districts often take it the wrong way, where they are teaching to the test. The point is to have a meaningful educational experience for children for which good test scores should be a by-product.
“Districts want to make sure if there are learning issues they are identified early on. This is a formative assessment that is periodic and ongoing and tells the teacher what the students need.”
Measuring, making progress
The Children’s Progress test, administered by MUSD three times a year, identifies where students are in relation to their peers, but isn’t merely data. It also provides hundreds of activities for teachers to help students learn in the areas where they were deficient, while also suggesting harder activities for those ahead of the curve.
Keesling, who is in charge of leading the testing training for teachers, said the benefits of small group work can be seen most clearly here.
“We’re looking for pockets in the academics that aren’t being met,” said Keesling, who holds a background in early childhood development. “We do a lot of different things in the classroom, including breaking down into group work. Our teachers can analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their class and can teach from what they learn from the data.”
The data from the testing is immediately available to teachers, Nelson said, and allows for advanced grouping abilities so teachers can readily view which areas large portions of their class are struggling or excelling. The data is also individualized for a report on each student that can then be discussed with parents in conferences to give better understanding of what they can do to help their children at home in the areas they need improvement.
“The sooner you get them tested, the better off they are and the more foundations they will have,” Keesling said.
Her role, in part, is to help teachers understand the data and how to implement that into their daily lesson plans.
“You can differentiate to meet the needs of all the students. Our responsibility is to teach the teachers to use the data to drive the instruction.”
Getting out of guesswork
While the Children’s Progress exam is not all inclusive – Nelson likens the assessments to getting a physical at the doctor’s office – MUSD does further supplement it with other measurement tools, such as DIEBLS and their elementary school achievement programs. A crucial element of what it does provide, Nelson believes, is the most accurate look at what these students know and what they are on the cusp of learning.
“There is lower performance anxiety which provides more reliable data,” he said. “Just one test can have over 15,000 possible different paths students can take, which makes for a highly individualized experience. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all test... because you would waste time if it is too easy or too hard for some students.”
Flores, who was instrumental in helping set up the testing for the Ak-Chin students, said his former East Chicago district had expanded to testing students not inside the district by the time he left in 2006. It is his goal, he said, to eventually expand the testing for all 3- and 4-year olds in Maricopa and the surrounding area, regardless of whether they attend MUSD schools or not, so as to prepare parents and teachers on how to grow the children intellectually.
“This is all about efficiency so (teachers) can enrich and remediate where they need to,” Nelson said. “For the teacher in early elementary schools, there’s no more guessing.”