In Greg Hawkins' sixth-grade math class, students attempt to solve multi-step problems, despite stumbling over words like "approximately."

Over in Leif Neilson's math class, anxious eighth-graders are urged to read practice questions carefully before picking an answer.

Downstairs, language arts teacher Sarah Salo pleads with her sixth-graders to stay the course, even if they don't care much for reading about lumberjacks.

As this year's round of state assessments starts this week, nowhere are the stakes greater than at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary in Minneapolis, which has had among the worst test scores in Minnesota.

Persistently low test scores earned the school the dubious distinction of being one of only two schools in the state tagged for "restructuring" under the federal No Child Left Behind Law last year. Lucy Craft Laney in Minneapolis was the other.

More than one-third of the state's schools missed their student achievement goals last year. Missed goals mean sanctions for schools that escalate with every year the goal is missed, leading up to the ultimate sanction: restructuring.

Restructuring means the school staff is replaced.

Or, in Minneapolis school district parlance, "fresh-started." Johnson started this school year with a new principal, teaching staff and mindset.

While the "fresh start" means Johnson is no longer on the list of failing schools, that doesn't mean the pressure is off in this year's testing. A poor showing could start the cycle of penalties again.

"There is some nervousness. It's personal for every teacher here because we want the students to do well. We know what we're up against," Principal Mark Bonine said last week. "A big part of our strategy is getting the students to believe that they can do it."

So far, students at Johnson have shown promising results on district-administered standardized tests, said Dave Heistad, the district's testing and research director. For instance, students made a 25 percent gain in reading and a 10 percent gain in math on the National Achievement Level Test (NALT), he said. Black students at Johnson, Heistad noted, have narrowed the achievement gap between them and their Asian and Hispanic classmates.

The Johnson staff has "created a very serious climate about academics. The gaps are closing substantially," Heistad added.

Despite the gains, the school, with 710 students and a concentration of black, poor, non-English speaking and special-education students, will be judged on how many students pass the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. Depending on their grade level, students in the K-8 school will take tests in reading, math, writing and/or science.

Teachers at Johnson say they "are not teaching to the test," but rather familiarizing students with the tongue-twisting, multiple-problem solving questions that appear on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

Bonine said students also took weekly practice tests to learn different reading and math strategies.

At Johnson, the goal is to help students get over barriers, such as not knowing certain words or phrases that could appear on the test. Those intangibles that could negate several months of positive class work.

"They've come a long way since September," said Hawkins. "It's been fun watching their progress."

A sample problem his sixth-graders faced last week: "Deidre folds 78 shirts in 1 hour at work each week. What is the closest to the number of shirts she folds if she works 19 hours per week? A.) 100; B.) 560; C.) 1,600 or D.) 11,200."

Simple multiplication, eh? Yet, when Timesha Tatum and her classmates tried solving it, the word "closest" threw them off.

Seconds ticked from a timer. Many students dissected the question. Some screamed out wrong answers. Some slumped in frustration.

"Straighten up," Hawkins barked, displaying his National Guard background.

Finally, Dazhown Coleman blurted out "1,482." Suddenly, a chorus of students yelled the "closest" number to that:

C.) 1,600!

"Correct," Hawkins said.

Regaining their focus

For Neilson, the challenge was to get his eighth-graders, many rusty from spring break, to regain their concentration.

"I can help you focus, but the ability is up to you," Neilson said as he checked students' work. "If you don't understand the question structure, you won't get the content."

He sent one disruptive pupil to detention. No more distractions. Time is precious.

Sarah Salo barely sat down. She roamed her Language Arts classroom laboring to keep her sixth-graders on task in a lesson about the lumber industry.

She stopped frequently at one table, where the lack of interest was apparent.

"Put yourselves in their shoes; imagine you're a lumberjack," Salo pleaded. "Listen, I want you to do your best, because you have to take this seriously."

Heistad cautioned that schools should be careful not to use the state tests to solely measure student performance. But Susan Alexander, a third-grade teacher at Johnson, said last week it's hard not to when there's so much on the line -- including the school's reputation.

Making progress

Alexander remained firm with her students during their practice sessions last week, yet gave quick praise when they recognized that a set of numbers rose in increments of two (12,14,16,18...).

"Kiss your brains," Alexander said. "You're geniuses."

They smooched their hands and planted them on their foreheads. There were no big pre-test pep rallies at the school on Friday and Monday, just more test prep work. Students were gently reminded to get plenty of sleep -- and be ready for this morning.

Will Johnson beat the odds? Will the "fresh start" prove valuable? That's the unknown until test scores are released this summer.

"We'll have to wait and see," Bonine said.

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790