Third-graders usually can’t be counted on to remember important dates, other than their birthday. But third-grader Antonio knows the exact dates of his end-of-grade tests, or EOGs.
"Our two EOGs are May 31—that’s the reading one. Then the math one is on June first," he explains. Antonio is sitting around a low table with a few classmates at Eastway Elementary School in Durham. He takes a break from his writing prompt to share how he feels about his first end-of-grade test.
"I'm thinking about it a lot because I really want to pass it," he says. "My stomach’s nervous and everything. I got the 'BGs'—that’s the bubble guts."
His classmate Shamoria interjects as she passes by with a practice test in hand. "I wouldn’t be talking about it, I wouldn't be worrying about it—I would have been studying," she advises, and marches off to do small group-work with their teacher, Turquoise LeJeune Parker.
Like all teachers at Eastway, Parker is under a lot of pressure to improve student test scores.
"The state expects me to perform," she said. "And when I say ‘me,’ I mean my kids. They expect my kids to perform, and they expect to see proficiency and growth."
Eastway got an 'F' last year on its school report card, which is based on how well kids perform on their end-of-grade tests. And while the school has made steady progress over the last couple years on improving test scores, less than 20 percent of its third graders tested at "proficient" or grade-level in reading last year. Eastway is also a Title I school where most students come from a low-income families. Some students are homeless, and many students come from immigrant families and are still learning English.
Low end-of-grade test scores can have consequences for administrators and teachers. Districts can fire personnel at persistently low-scoring schools. The scores also have implications for students themselves. Third-graders who don't score proficient on their end-of-grade reading test may have to attend a summer reading camp, and can even be held back a grade.
Parker says the looming test does make her nervous. But in these last few weeks of school, she’s trying to prepare her students without making them more anxious. She’s also trying to keep her classroom exciting.
"We need to review for the information that’s going to be on the test, right? But I’m not getting ready to sit here and put packet after packet in their face," Parker says. "I can’t stand a worksheet."
Instead, on this day, Parker turns over her classroom to computer engineer Osafo James. He breaks the kids into groups of four or five, gives each group a computer, and tells them to have at it. They’re allowed to break it apart into its separate components. They also learn some new vocabulary: "random access memory," "hard drive," and "universal serial bus."
"Cereal bus?!" exclaims one student.
Parker explains that the words sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
"What's that called?" she asks the class.
"A homophone!" several students shout excitedly.
James isn’t the only recent visitor to this classroom. In the past few weeks, Parker has brought in a college history professor, a city councilwoman, a lawyer and a few others. Turning her class over to a visitor could be seen as a risky move for a teacher just two weeks out from her end-of-grade tests. But Parker doesn’t see it that way.
"All of the things that I’m exposing them to, and giving them experiences—these are all things that connect to the standards," she said.
Parker says exposing her kids to activities and ideas they’ve never encountered helps them build the connections and critical thinking skills they’ll need to meet the state academic standards on the test. It also keeps them engaged and excited about school.
Parker does have her students do some more traditional learning activities, like going over practice test questions in small groups.
"We do spend lots of time daily making sure they understand the types of things they're going to encounter [on the test]," she said.
Parker says because her students face so many additional barriers, a big part of preparing for the end-of-grade test is building confidence. Looking up from the guts of a computer she's just disassembled, third-grader Mary says it helps to know Ms. Parker has her back.
"If people say we’re not smart, she says that we are smart. She always encourages us," Mary said.
"I tell them all the time: Put your hands on your brain, tell yourself 'I am powerful. I am smart,'" Parker said.
"In our morning meeting, I had them say ‘I am creative, I am gifted, I am excited about my future, I am a scholar.’ I’m having them say these things [about] themselves so they can believe it and know that this test on one day does not determine who you are and what you’re capable of, " Parker said.
Parker hopes that confidence will help students like Antonio avoid the bubble guts when they sit down for the big test next week. Parker will find out how they did when their scores come back next fall. But whatever they turn out to be, she’s already counting this year a success.