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If practice makes perfect, local schools should do better this year on the state's fourth-grade language arts assessment test that will be given from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4.

And there's plenty of room for improvement.

Last year's test -- the first of its kind in New York -- showed just how hard it will be for schools to prepare students for the state's tough new graduation standards.

In Buffalo, 71 percent of the pupils scored below the proficiency level and were deemed to be in need of extra help to eventually pass a Regents English exam in high school. Even the region's highest-performing suburban schools had at least 25 percent of their fourth-graders score below proficiency.

Statewide, just 48 percent of last year's public school fourth-graders met the standards.

"We're hopeful that the results are going to get better, and we expect that," said Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for state Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills. "But we're not projecting any percentage increases."

Ann K. Fronckowiak, who oversees school effectiveness services for the Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, warned that dramatic improvement should not be expected in one year.

"I would be looking for steady, incremental growth toward the standards," she said. "The test is still a photo of a moving object."

Educators also stressed that the six-hour fourth-grade exam -- given in two-hour segments over three days -- is designed strictly to measure student progress. Pupils do not need to pass it in order to move on to fifth grade, and the results do not affect their report card grades.

Clearly, however, the state's standards-based reform effort is prompting schools to dramatically alter teaching techniques, to keep a closer eye on the progress of individual students and to provide extra help for those who are struggling.

"We've totally changed the way we do instruction," said Jean Polino, principal of Buffalo's Triangle Academy School 28. "Kids are doing a lot more essay-type writing in every curricular area. They're even writing more in math, by explaining how they got an answer."

Based on last year's results, the Frontier Central Schools gave teachers additional training in helping students develop their critical thinking skills, said Elizabeth Bradley, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Pupils at Frontier take assessment tests at the end of ,second and third grades, and more general literacy profiles are developed for students in kindergarten and first grade.

"If we see a student needs additional assistance and intervention, we want to be able to do that early on," Bradley said. "It's all about being on track to pass the real high-stakes tests -- the Regents exams."

In order to graduate from high school, current fourth-graders will be required to pass five Regents exams with grades of at least 65.

At Northwood Elementary School in West Seneca, after-school sessions for fourth-graders focus on reading, writing, speaking and listening -- the four areas tested on the state assessment test.

"I think people are approaching it with confidence because they know what they're dealing with," said Mark Crawford, the Northwood principal. "Everyone now has the experience, and it's not being hyped up as much anymore."

The importance of the fourth-grade exam was underlined recently when Kaplan, a national test preparation firm, published a 53-page guide to both the English and math exam, which will be given May 17 to 19. It offers advice to parents on how to help children prepare for the tests, and -- like study guides for the SAT -- gives sample questions.

But there is little sentiment among educators, both here and nationally, to have 9-year-olds spending time with study guides.

"I wouldn't sit a fourth-grader down with sample problems," said Janine Bempechat, a faculty member at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education who specializes in achievement motivation. "That's just creating anxiety. Let the teachers do what they're trained to do, and let the results guide you."

Polino said parents should instead emphasize language arts skills through reading at home, and expose children to math through everyday activities like shopping and preparing recipes.

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