Steamboat Springs Brad Kindred knows how to make brain juice.
A self-described "freaky science teacher" at Steamboat Springs Middle School, Kindred spent much of the past week administering Colorado Student Assessment Program tests to his students.
To gear up their brains before and during the tests, Kindred periodically sprays a mixture of lavender, tangerine and rosemary scents into the classroom air -- sometimes directly over the heads of test-takers.
"The olfactory lobe (of the brain) is directly beneath your frontal lobe, which is involved with short-term memory," he said. "The lavender calms students, tangerine makes them cheery, and the rosemary helps with memory. It's common knowledge in my classroom. The kids call it 'brain juice.'"
Kindred said "simple things like that" can make a significant difference in student performance on the CSAPs, a series of state-mandated standardized tests designed to provide student achievement data for school districts and measure school achievement through the Colorado Department of Education's annual School Accountability Reports. The School Accountability Reports evaluate every public school in the state using the CSAP results of its students.
Nearly 472,000 students in grades three through 10 are taking CSAPs in reading, writing and math during a four-week period in March and April. Students in fifth, eighth and 10th grades also take a science CSAP test.
Although CSAPs have little or no effect on a student's academic standing -- Steamboat Springs High School offers test exemptions to sophomores who do well on math CSAPs, and Principal Mike Knezevich said some colleges look at the accountability rating of the school an applicant attended -- students still can feel pressure in the standardized testing environment, local educators say.
"The sad part with CSAPs is that it's very intensive," said Rhonda Sweetser, building administrator at Hayden Valley Elementary School. "You have some kids who get very stressed out about it. We try to make it as low-stress as we can."
Staff members at Hayden Valley Elementary School take fruit and granola bars to classrooms before CSAP tests, and children are given milk and cookies in the afternoon on test days.
"They think that is just the best," Sweetser said. "It sounds like something real small, but the kids really look forward to it."
It's OK to chew gum
Food has become a staple of CSAP testing in Routt County, and likely across the state. Research shows that students can concentrate longer, focus better and remember more when they're fed, and local teachers do their best to ensure that students have something in their stomachs on test days.
Middle school and high school staffs serve breakfast on the mornings of CSAP tests, and snacks are served throughout the day. Paula Ninger, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Steamboat Springs Middle School, said the food is her favorite part of CSAPs. She often can choose from pizza, bagels, sunflower seeds, milk and juices.
Soda Creek Elementary School fourth-grader Lena Barker, 9, looks for something a little sweeter before starting the tests.
"They're fun because of the candy we get," Lena said, listing Starburst and gum as her favorites.
Sweetser said students at Hayden's elementary school get to chew gum during CSAPs, a change from typical classroom rules. "Research shows chewing gum helps activate the brain," she said.
Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Tim Bishop said that in past years, students at his school have been given peppermint candy for the same reason.
A full stomach is one of several factors, including alertness, brain activity and location, that can change a student's test scores, Kindred said.
In addition to the brain juice, Kindred plays polyrhythmic music at a very low volume during CSAPs and has his students use their eyes to follow a laser around the room without moving their heads. Doing so "turns on the occipital lobe," Kindred said.
Physical activities such as tossing a ball and stretching -- several Steamboat schools use "stretch breaks" during testing -- can help, too, Kindred said.
Bishop said the middle school has made an effort this year to have students take tests with their regular teachers, even according to subject. Taking their math CSAP with their math teacher, for example, can help students take advantage of familiar, comfortable environments.
"There are so many variables as to how a kid performs on a given day," Kindred said.
Balancing those variables can create headaches for teachers, school staff and district administrators.
The CSAP tests must be administered statewide during a four-week period in March and April. Schools test all students, including those who get sick, are absent, have special learning needs, have physical disabilities or simply don't feel like taking a test that day. To provide accurate academic data for comparison with other Colorado schools, the CSAPs also must be given according to strict rules.
"The object is to standardize the test across the state, and the easiest way for the state to do that is to set guidelines for what kids can and can't do," said Ann Sims, director of curriculum and instruction for the Steamboat Springs School District. "It's as though you had all the fourth-graders in the state in the same room, taking the same test."
Sims said she received 65 boxes of CSAP materials from the state Department of Education, along with a procedures manual more than 1,000 pages thick.
Rules for CSAP testing include no electronic devices such as cell phones, no beverages other than bottled water -- in case of spills -- and no written marks outside of specified areas in the test books.
"We have to make sure any other marks are erased," said Sims, who is charged with ensuring proper test materials are returned next month to CTB McGraw-Hill, a California-based company that will score and process test results. "If (a test book) still is not acceptable, we have to redo the entire book and send it in with the original.
"That has already happened this year."
Sims said staff members question her daily about how to handle various CSAP issues, such as a middle school student who writes with a computer.
That student is taking CSAPs with a school aide working as a scribe -- writing the student's answers into the test books. The test books and printouts of the student's typed answers will be sent to CTB McGraw-Hill.
For math tests, students are not allowed to use scrap paper and must make all of their calculations inside the test books, using tools -- or "manipulations" such as rulers and protractors -- provided by the state.
"The only manipulations they can use are what the state gives them," Sims said. "I hand them all out, and I send them all back."
Confidentiality also is an issue. On Friday at Soda Creek Elementary School, learning support specialist Michele Miller gave CSAP tests to a student who had missed school during the tests because of illness.
"He can't be back with his classmates until he's been tested," Miller said. "It's kind of a juggling act."
Sims said CSAP testing creates a heavy, challenging workload throughout the school district.
"It really is unbelievable," she said. "And every district in the state is doing the exact same thing."
According to the Department of Education, this year's CSAP results will be available July 21.
How much is too much
Mike Knezevich, principal at Steamboat Springs High School, said the glut of guidelines and regulations nearly overshadows the test.
"CSAP has kind of taken on a life of its own," Knezevich said. "(State officials) get so caught up in the administering of the test that they lose sight of its real value, and that's sad."
Although teachers and admin-istrators say the real value of CSAPs --- school accountability, alignment of curriculum and higher expectations for academic performance -- are worthwhile, the cost may be too high.
"It's really a draining situation on our kids and teachers," said Mark MacHale, principal at Strawberry Park Elementary School. "I welcome accountability, but I wish it wasn't so intense for 8- and 9-year-olds."
Sweetser said that at Hayden Valley Elementary School, more tests, such as reading inventories and federally mandated tests for students in kindergarten to third grade, will begin shortly after the CSAPs end.
"Every time you turn around in March, April and May, we're doing one kind of testing or another," she said. "It is really interruptive and has a tremendous impact on the daily learning in our school."
Sometimes, students are more relaxed during CSAPs than their teachers.
"I love them," said Jordan Sharp, 13, an eighth-grader at Steamboat Springs Middle School. "We don't do much, just take the tests for two hours and then sleep or do whatever. It's kind of like a down week."
"We recommend that teachers don't give homework or have big projects due during testing," said Kandise Gilbertson, learning support specialist at the middle school.
Six parent volunteers helped Gilbertson collate test books -- including books in large print, Braille and Spanish -- in preparation for CSAPs, which she said do not reveal the entire academic picture at a school.
"A lot of kids work in different ways, and this is a totally standardized setting," she said.
"I think it would be a terrible state of education if all we relied on was the CSAP test."
CSAP testing began nine years ago. This year's sophomore class has taken CSAPs every year since third grade.
"You wonder about that -- just how much testing these kids can handle," Knezevich said.
-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org