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Schools Across Territory Gear Up for VITAL Exam

March 15, 2009 — From pep rallies to parent-teacher meetings, schools throughout both districts have been preparing for this week's V.I. Territorial Assessment of Learning (VITAL) exam in a variety of ways.
Every year, a good amount of the VITAL data is factored into the territorial report card, which shows what kind of progress students in grades three, five, eight and 11 are making toward standards in reading and math. The VITAL results, along with attendance and participation rates, are also used to measure how far each school, and school district, has come in meeting requirements outlined in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Last school year, the number of V.I. schools meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards set by the Education Department dropped dramatically. But Education officials expect the numbers to climb this year, as efforts over the past few months to focus on the students' strengths and weaknesses has culminated in a variety of after-school programs, professional-development sessions and one-on-one parent meetings, among other things. In addition to forums held on all three islands by the Education commissioner, the department has also been taking out ads in the newspapers and stressing the importance of the VITAL on various radio public-service announcements.
At the same time, the number of students hitting the minimum proficiency standards in reading and math actually went up last year, according to Deputy Superintendent Michael Harrigan. Since the standards are the same this year, there should be more schools making AYP, he explained.
"I think we're going to see a big improvement over last year," Harrigan said. "And I think chief among those reasons is the fact that teachers have been focusing on the students' strengths and addressing the challenges they've been facing by looking over last year's VITAL data, and beginning to understand more about the kind of gaps we're seeing."
Special-education students and English-language learners, for example, are just a couple of the subgroups that have continued to post low scores.
This year, emphasis has been placed on making the students better readers, and also on attendance — making sure students actually show up to take the exam, Harrigan said. At some schools, such as Joseph Gomez Elementary School on St. Thomas, teachers and staff members have been encouraging students to have perfect attendance records year round by holding quarterly award ceremonies. Others, such as Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, have held attendance parades to get students pumped up for this week's test.
Last week, pep rallies were all the rage at a number of schools throughout the territory.
On St. Croix, Claude O. Markoe Elementary held an honor roll and perfect-attendance assembly on Friday, attended by students, teachers and parents who came out to show support for their children's good academic performance and 100-percent attendance.
"The pep rally and assembly is to encourage students to do their best on the VITAL," said Principal Kent Moorehead.
Jestine Irish, guidance counselor at Juanita Gardine Elementary, said the school also held a pep rally to encourage the students to strive for 95-percent attendance. The teachers were also given booklets and handouts to help prepare the students for the tests. Students were given tests with visual-aids tips.
Student at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School on St. Thomas also turned out for a Friday rally.
"We started out the rally with a routine workout, with school teams vying against each other," said Cancryn Principal Yvonne Pilgrim. "Each team was trying to score high — it's part of our 'Use Your Own Brain' initiative. Besides the athletics, we've been doing academic test practice every Friday."
She also noted the school's reading initiatives.
"Our reading program requires students to read every single day," Pilgrim said. "They are reading the 15 Blue Force High School series. They are stories our students can relate to. We've implemented other initiatives, like changing schedules to make sure the same curriculum is taught across the board."
St. Croix's John H. Woodson Jr. High held a parent-teacher meeting Thursday to discuss the purpose of the test and how parents can assist in students' success. Parents were encouraged to make sure their children were on time and prepared.
"Attendance affects the yearly progress reports, so it is important to have high attendance," said Woodson's assistant principal, Natasha Smith. The school also held a pep rally Tuesday with entertainment, motivational speakers and skits to hype and motivate students to be prepared. Students were also given tips on test-taking and given practice tests, Smith said.
Many other schools have opted to give students practice tests and reading homework throughout the year. Guy Benjamin School on St. John, for example, has instituted mandatory reading every night for students in grades four through six. They're required to read 10 pages of a book of their choice every night and then write a summary. After they complete the book, they're tested on an online-reading program.
"It tests for comprehension," said Principal Dionne Wells.
Those students who read below grade level, termed at-risk, receive individual attention in a special program. Students in grades four through six participate in an after-school program, while those in kindergarten through grade three get extra help for a half hour each day, Well said.
Students at Julius E. Sprauve School are also getting ready for the test in a variety of ways, including practicing testing.
The students in grades seven through nine used the Scoring High system three days a week, while those in the elementary grades learned test-taking strategies to familiarize themselves with content and test awareness.
At Charlotte Amalie High School, students are tested on specific skills and concepts before and after the VITAL, according to Principal Carmen Howell. The pre-tests are meant to identify the weaknesses of each student, while the "post-tests" are geared toward stressing areas for improvement, she said. CAHS students were given an exam every two to three weeks during the semester, and after-school sessions were held to allow students to study for the exam, Howell explained.
At St. Croix's Central High School, students have been taking short math quizzes with two or three problems. Along with doing 10 minutes of silent reading every day, vocabulary words have also been integrated into the teachers' lessons for the day, according to Assistant Principal Regina Williams.
Of course, emphasis has to be placed on good study habits, and that's also an area in which parents can get involved, Harrigan said.
"Some of the things parents can help to do during the assessments is make sure the students have enough sleep, eat a good breakfast in the morning and make sure the student shows up to school," he said. "We've also talked a lot about parents creating a positive environment throughout the year for reading, and modeling reading where possible. I think that with all the messages we've been getting out, there has been some positive impact on parents, and I think the efforts to improve student literacy and make sure the schools are supported, I really think there will be a positive impact this year."
VITAL testing kicks off Monday and runs through Friday in both districts.
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