Prepped and Pumped to Score Big

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

This week, March madness sweeps Maryland public schools. Not over hoops, but over state achievement tests.

Nowhere is the frenzy more intense than in Prince George's County, where schools are battling to raise their academic reputation.

Last week in the cafeteria of Forest Heights Elementary School, an emcee rapped, drummers pounded, majorettes twirled batons and cheerleaders cried: "Pump it up, pump it up! You gotta gotta gotta pass the test! C'mon and pass the test! Pass it! Ace it! On the MSA -- the coming test -- we want you to do your best!"

A pep rally for a test.

At nearby James Madison Middle School, another scene unfolded: An algebra teacher drilled students on common mistakes after a warm-up for the tests, known as Maryland School Assessments. Seventh-grader Fredrece Clingman raised her hand and asked whether all the advance fuss might backfire.

"They put us under so much pressure to take these tests," the 12-year-old said as class ended. "Then when we take them, we just go blank. We don't know what to do. Sometimes I go blank."

During the next two weeks, roughly 400,000 students statewide from third through eighth grade will take reading and math tests to determine how their schools rank in a ratings-hungry society.

The No Child Left Behind law, which requires these tests, has put a spotlight on Prince George's that is singular in the Washington suburbs.

Maryland now lists 75 Prince George's schools on a watch list that declares them in need of improvement. Targeted schools get extra scrutiny and help from the county and the state. But they also face sanctions, including the threat of a forced reorganization or dismissal of key staff, if they continue to fall short over several years.

No other local system has more than 14 schools -- Montgomery County's total -- on the Maryland watch list. In Northern Virginia, where most achievement tests are given in late May and early June, relatively few schools are on that state's watch list. Locally, only D.C. public schools, where testing begins in late April, face challenges akin to those in Prince George's. More than 100 schools in the District are on a watch list.

Prince George's officials have tried nearly everything in recent years to raise scores. They have extended the school day and school week for thousands of students who are below grade level or in danger of falling short. They've standardized curricula to ensure adherence to state guidelines -- and thus to the MSA, now in its fourth year. They have prepped kids on exam strategies through a program called "test sophistication" and have sought to recruite more teachers to bolster instruction for students with disabilities. They've also put new principals into some lagging schools and assigned "turnaround specialists" to a few schools that have been on the watch list for several years.

For now, the hubbub is at such schools as Forest Heights in Oxon Hill, a few blocks from Southeast Washington, and James Madison, in the Upper Marlboro area outside the Capital Beltway. Today and tomorrow, students will take math tests lasting about 60 to 75 minutes each day. Next week, they'll sit for two days of reading tests of similar duration. Most questions are multiple choice, but some call for written responses.

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