March 31, 2009


Eighth-grade puts students to the test

Some educators worry busy schedule leading to lower assessment scores

TestBob Ellis/staff photographer
Cortland Junior High School teacher Breck Aspinwall works with his eighth-grade students during a science test Friday. Eighth-grade can be difficult for students as they struggle with a busy academic schedule and new-found social cliques and pressures, Aspinwall says.

Staff Reporter

Breck Aspinwall roamed behind rows of desks Friday at Cortland Junior-Senior High School, while his eighth-grade science students bent over the task at hand: a unit test.
The laboratory sinks gleamed at the back of Room 137, having been kept clean by students. Along with studying introductory physics and chemistry, eighth-graders absorb the scientific process itself and lab skills such as being safe around fire, measuring and making experiments work.
Student teacher Eric Sharpsteen monitored the room while Aspinwall, who has been teaching at the school for 25 years, made sure things were running smoothly. He had helped the students prepare the day before, through an exercise designed like a game show.
Aspinwall says he loves teaching eighth-graders, since they are starting to think abstractly and catching glimpses of adulthood, yet still love learning.
“They still enjoy learning, if the subject is at all interesting to them,” he says.
Aspinwall just wishes they had a little more of a break in the day. Lunch is the only period when they are not accountable for knowledge, he said. They do not even get a study hall.
In New York, eighth-graders face five state assessment tests, more than any other grade: math, English Language Arts, social studies, science and foreign language.
Since the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2000, state assessment tests have grown in number and importance. They are used to judge teachers and schools, especially weighed in fourth and eighth grades, in math and English literacy arts more than other subjects.
How eighth-graders are doing in school has been the subject of much discussion this year among area boards of education. At Cortland Junior-Senior High School, the failure rate is up and the district continues to watch the students’ performance on state math and English Language Arts tests.
Their passing rate in English Language Arts is 88 percent, although English teacher Stephanie Passeri says “passing” is a misleading term.
“What the state calls ‘minimum standards’ is not the usual 65 that is the passing grade during the school year,” says Passeri, who has taught at Cortland Junior-Senior High School since 1993. “It comes out to the equivalent of about a B plus.”
Students’ efforts in the social studies and science tests have been strong. Their passing rate for the second quarter this year was 95 percent overall, with 52 percent mastery.
“They have to know a lot more now than they did 30 years ago,” Aspinwall says.
Some educators have become concerned because New York’s eighth-graders rank in the bottom 15 states nationally in literacy and in the bottom 18 states in math. Others say national comparisons are difficult to judge, since standards vary and some states do not have large cities such as New York City or Buffalo, which can bring scores down.
“Most teachers don’t mind the state tests, it’s a good way to compare districts, but it’s the sheer number of them,” Aspinwall said.
“It’s fine to gauge a student’s growth,” said Thomas Turck, Homer Junior High principal. “But the tests for fourth and eighth grades are longer than tests in the other grades, so you can’t really gauge growth.”
At 13 years old, students in eighth grade are making the transition from elementary to high school.
“The social pecking order is really emerging, as they choose their clique,” Aspinwall said. “They are noticing the opposite sex, flirting, forming couples. But they are just kids still. They have a lot of energy, and the challenge for any educator is to focus that.”
Passeri says she loves working with this age group because “they are old enough to think abstractly but not yet old enough to get into jobs, cars, the path to college. It’s a packed year, as we make them be more independent.”
Sharpsteen, Aspinwall’s student teacher from SUNY Cortland, said his adolescent education courses focus on being positive, being firm but trying to have fun with the eighth-graders.
The grade’s course requirements include a foreign language, art, music, physical education and a course called home and careers.
The science assessment covers four years in both physical and life sciences. It contains some math as well.
The English assessment is far tougher than the one for seventh grade, teachers and administrators say, especially since it is timed.
“On the second day (of three), the students have to listen to a two-page passage read by the teacher, and then, in 45 minutes, write two half-page answers to questions, complete a chart and write a short essay. The third day, they have 60 minutes to read two long nonfiction passages and do the same kind of writing as the previous day.”
The exam uses nonfiction more than fiction, so Passeri spends less time on literature than she would like.
“This test is crucial, with a lot riding on it, but I can’t let it take over the whole school year,” she said. “I use the sports analogy with the tests: it’s the season finale, I am the coach, every practice for the exam is like a scrimmage.”
Turck said another challenge is that the state waits to see how students answer questions on a test before it tells teachers how to grade the tests.
When teachers develop their own test, they know beforehand how questions will be weighed.
Laurence Spring, Cortland’s superintendent of schools, also believes eighth grade is too tightly structured.
“My druthers would be to remove all state mandates and make it more like elementary education than high school education,” Spring said. “Assign 15 kids per teacher, and give them two years to get kids ready for high school. I think they would perform better.”
Spring admits this is a radical view. Most educators view eighth grade as the portal to high school.
Turck said educators must keep up with the changes in middle school, as students know more about life thanks to what they find online.
“Kids want to do well and they are used to being pushed (academically),” he said. “It’s the way of the world, being asked to know more at a younger age.”


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