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District adds four half days to calendar

Standardized tests don't usually give children a cause for celebration, but a slew of new assessments is likely to make plenty of them in Orchard Park smile this year.

The district has added four half days to the calendar, shaving a few hours of instructional time off each day to give teachers time to correct thousands of new tests that are required, starting this year, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The calendar change creates two long weekends for pupils, with early dismissal Friday and Monday on Jan. 27 and 30 and March 31 and April 3.

Teachers will spend those afternoons learning how to grade the tests and then grading them.

Schools have been required to give math and English assessments to fourth- and eighth-graders for the past few years under the federal law. This year, it will be expanded to include annual math and English testing in grades three through eight.

Beyond that, the state Education Department continues to require tests for science in fourth grade, social studies in fifth grade and both subjects in eighth grade.

The new requirements will double the number of answer sheets that schools have to grade, bringing the number to 7,600 this year in Orchard Park. Besides taking class time to give the tests, officials have to figure out how to make time for teachers to grade them.

It would have cost the district $33,000 to pay substitutes to cover classes while classroom teachers graded the tests, officials estimated, and children would have lost a number of days with their classroom teachers.

So they decided to add the half days -- and get more of the teachers involved. That means everybody from the physical education teacher to the art teacher and the music teacher will be helping to grade the math and English tests at the middle school and four elementary schools, Superintendent Joan D. Thomas said.

"Everybody is going to be part of this thing," she said. "I see it as a great staff development opportunity for teachers that don't deal with this [English language arts] and math specifically."

Orchard Park Middle School Principal James Higgins acknowledged it might seem unusual to have special-area teachers helping to grade English and math papers but said it will not detract from the process.

"It's not teaching the [subject] matter, it's scoring it," he said. "There's rubrics. They'll be trained on how to go through it."

The district might also end up having English and math teachers from the high school help with the grading, Thomas said. Each paper will be graded by at least two teachers, as required by the state.

While the middle and elementary schools will dismiss before noon on the half days, it's possible that Orchard Park High School students could end up attending school for the full days, according to Principal Robert P. Farwell Jr. That decision will probably be made by November.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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