For Some Hickman Mills Students, Frequent Tests Bring Language Barriers Into Stark Focus

Feb 3, 2017

Second-grade teacher Aubrey Paine leads her class into the school computer lab, gets everyone seated, then moves from computer to computer, typing in login information and issuing instructions.

It is testing time at Ingels Elementary School in the Hickman Mills School District. Besides the “benchmark” testing that goes on throughout the school year to assess whether classes are mastering necessary material, students are taking tests known as “Star assessments.” These are standardized, computer tests designed to measure a student’s progress in subjects like reading and math over the course of the school year.

As part of a project KCUR calls 'Musical Chairs,' journalist Barbara Shelly is spending a year inside two classrooms in an elementary school in the Hickman Mills School District.

After 10 minutes or so, most of Paine’s students are engaged with reading short segments and answering multiple choice questions to test their comprehension. About the only sound is the murmur of children sounding out words and sentences out loud.

Predictably, the silence doesn’t last. “I don’t know these words,” a student says plaintively, then grunts in frustration. Paine tells him to stay calm and do his best.

One of the last students to be logged in is a child who arrived in Paine’s class in the fall speaking only Spanish. She’s making progress, but English doesn’t yet come easily to her.

“It’s testing your brain,” Paine tells her. “It’s better to guess than to leave a question blank.”

To me, she says: “It kills me that she has to take this test. You can’t pass a reading test if you can’t read English.”

For most of the class, though, the Star test provides a way for Paine and her students to gauge their progress.

“I’m trying to get them to have their own goals and meet them,” Paine says. “Just telling them they have to get better doesn’t work.”

A little later in the day, she is able to give her students good news. Most of them had boosted their scores from the start of the year. A few who didn’t were able to retake the test.

When all the scores are counted, Paine has 12 students performing at or above grade level -- up from just four in September. Only three students are in the “urgent intervention needed” bracket. All of them are from families where a language other than English is spoken in the home.

Paine’s second-grade class gets a shout-out from Sabrina Winfrey, the school principal, during morning announcements. Winfrey frequently makes a big deal out of a good Star test performance. The other day she announced that a student had improved her math score by 39 points.

“It’s to encourage kids to do their best,” Winfrey says. “They like to hear their names on the intercom.”

Testing is serious business at Ingels Elementary School in the Hickman Mills School District, as shown by this makeshift sign on a classroom door.
Credit Barbara Shelly / 89.3

After 2nd grade, the testing stakes grow more serious. Students from 3rd grade on this spring will take the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests. Their scores will play a role in the school’s annual performance report and also factor into the Hickman Mills School District’s accreditation status. The district currently is provisionally accredited.

Students get lots of practice in test taking. In a 4th grade classroom the other day, teacher Angelica Saddler urged her students on as they worked on a test that involved writing out answers to 26 questions. It was an exercise in thinking and focusing that some students embraced while others fidgeted and appeared to struggle.

Complicating the testing -- along with most everything else at Ingels -- is that the makeup of the classes keeps shifting. The school has seen an influx of students since Thanksgiving. The staff thought the school was crowded in September, when the attendance count was 494 students. In mid-January it was up to 518.

Saddler had a girl move out of her classroom recently, but she gained two boys -- one from outside of the district and one from another classroom at Ingels. Paine also acquired a child from another classroom, and a new boy from the Belton School District. She’s working on assessing their skills and getting them comfortable with the classroom routine.

“Every time I think we’re getting it down something changes,” Paine says.

In a high-poverty elementary school characterized by student churn, everyone gets tested.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at bshellykc@gmail.com.