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Competencies have far reaching effects

Merrie Leininger

Implementing the competency system has put a lot of stress on teachers. Some say it’s more work, while others say their concerns are for the students who will not be able to catch up in time to graduate.

The Douglas County graduating class of 2002 will have to demonstrate skills and knowledge in seven key areas: communication, math, science, social studies, foreign language, technology and employability.

This system of accountability is just now being implemented in the classrooms of Douglas High School.

“These are objectives, but not every kid will master every one, but they will master a percentage of every one,” said former Principal Bev Jeans.

Students have to reach a certain score on the achievement level tests in reading, math and science. Other areas don’t have tests, although there are projects the students have to successfully complete. For instance, in English, students have to write an essay and a career research paper.

The students will have many opportunities to pass all these areas. They first take the ALTs in the 3rd grade and write the papers in the 10th grade. If a student fails the reading ALT in the 9th grade, he or she is enrolled in a developmental English class, a class that already existed. Jeans said DHS did added classes to meet the need.

n Foreign language. Requiring conversation skills in a foreign language is quite a step for an American high school, but Jeans said the assessment is very basic, and in fact, the teachers want it to be more difficult.

The teachers themselves had to take classes to learn how to test oral communication skills and have already deemed many students have basic oral proficiency in French, Spanish and German.

Spanish teacher Laura Austin said her students seem to be on-track for the oral exam. She prepares them by shifting the focus away from writing in Spanish. She does a lot of acting out activities, class discussions and asking students to invent stories in Spanish.

This year she created an activity with the help of her older students who built a small Mexican town in the gym. The Spanish students had to go through customs, visit a tourist agency, exchange their money, get a hotel room and buy aspirin from a pharmacy – all while speaking Spanish.

“They never get enough time to practice conversations. The competency is about the importance of making sure they can apply it in a real world conversation,” Austin said.

Rachel Chipp, who will be a junior, was in Rebecca Browning’s Spanish 2 class and said she thinks forcing her class to be conversational in a foreign language is unfair.

“It puts a lot more stress on us. It takes time and studying and concentrating even more and takes away from other class time,” she said.

However, if it has to be done, she said the teachers are doing a good job preparing them.

Jake Sunderland already took and passed the test, but still said it is unfair to hold all next year’s juniors to that requirement.

“They haven’t meant any changes to me, but a lot of people now have to take a foreign language when they weren’t planning to. They should make it so the class has been required and the people knew ahead of time so they wouldn’t be stuck,” he said.

Branden Hadley, who will be a junior, said in the last school year, he has seen an increase in the work required of his class.

“There have definitely been extra reports, longer tests. It’s been more stressful,” Hadley said.

n Science. Leigh Luce, science foundations teacher, said this year’s first class went well, although teachers are still working out the bugs. The science foundations class was created by district science teachers when they examined how well current curriculum was meeting the competencies.

“We created it to serve the weaknesses in physical sciences. Unless the students are college-bound, they weren’t getting all the strands they needed,” Luce said.

The students have to complete a science inquiry project in the class to be checked off in their competency report card.

Luce said she didn’t realize how many students didn’t understand how to prepare a science experiment. However, some schools are now talking about holding science fairs for the first time next year, she said.

Luce has the same concern as Austin, who said her students just weren’t showing up to do the oral exams.

“The students generally come after school to do the interview and making sure everyone gets tested – chasing the kids around – is difficult. But, right now, I’ve tested over 100 kids and a high majority are passing,” Austin said.

n Math. Math teacher Jill Alley also said she likes the competencies because the school is sending well-prepared students out into the world.

She said she teaches to the ALT and the proficiency test more than before. Students in her integrated I class said they feel the pressure teachers are under.

“I’ve noticed the teachers are focused a lot more on the requirements, and before they were more focused on teaching. My English teacher talks about what we have to do all the time because she things we’re not as prepared. I think they are kind of throwing this at us; they should have prepared us more. They should have started a little earlier,” said Heather MacLeod, 16, who will be a junior. “Our whole life, we’ve been thinking this is what we’ve had to do to graduate and now it’s different.”

Some teachers are also concerned it’s all happening too fast.

n English. English teachers Jeannie Turnbeaugh and Phyllis Bateman say their students came to them in tears because they are afraid they won’t graduate.

“The district just expects it will work because it looks good on paper. We’re looking at it every day in the classes and trying to answer the kids’ questions every day,” Bateman said.

They said English teachers are confused about what will be required of their students because the rules keep getting changed. Both teachers also said they are losing more instruction time when a new requirement is added.

“We are hurting ourselves with the number of instruction days while we test, test and test. Kids miss my class to go take the foreign language and science tests. When you add on top of that TerraNova and state proficiency tests, you lose a lot of time. We’re in a horse race in terms of covering all the content,” Turnbeaugh said.

She said the system is not fair to next year’s juniors because it is still being tested.

Turnbeaugh, who also teaches world history, had complaints about the ALT test for that class. She said mistakes have been found on achievement level tests and there are questions on it that are not included in the curriculum.

“We are holding kids accountable to things we’re not ready for,” Turnbeaugh said.

The students are also struggling with their career papers, a required part of the competencies. The paper is based on Sophomore Shadowing, which has been discontinued by the occupational education department.

Turnbeaugh said she has been involved in building the competencies since the beginning and has always maintained more time was needed for piloting the system.

“The concept is good, but the implementation has been shamelessly irresponsible. The sad part is, the kids are just discovering this. We’ve been asking (the administration) for eight years about how we were supposed to do this and they keep saying, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ Our credibility with the kids is nonexistent because we have to tell them that what we told them before was expected of them has changed. They are bailing to other school districts and we are driving them out,” Bateman said.

Remediation for the juniors just began last year, she said, and students won’t have the time to catch up.

Bateman said her English students weren’t passing their two required English essays, therefore, they will have to re-write them next year. However, next year, they have another set of essays they are required to write.

“They have to come in on their own time and a lot can’t economically choose night school. They have to support their families and we’re locking those kids out,” Bateman said.

n Technology. Mary Roman, who teaches at the Company, an English class that requires computer skills and a professional attitude, had the same complaints.

She said 130 Douglas High School students had to retake the computer literature tests last year because middle schools threw out the results, not realizing they would be required for the competencies. Now, the students have to retake the test, years after they took the class.

If they can’t pass the test, they will have to spend another year in the class.

“Forty students came in and took it and the rest have to repeat the class, through no fault of their own,” she said.