LAKE STEVENS — It’s not hard to tell when the students in Karen Coulombe’s classroom are testing.
The instructor at Cavelero Mid High likes to turn up classical music on test days. Other than that, students tend to stay unusually quiet save for the clicking of keys and mouses at their computers, she said.
As of December, Cavelero was the top school in the state for the number of Microsoft Office Specialist tests passed, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Glacier Peak and Snohomish high schools ranked in the top 10, too.
Two Cavelero ninth-graders, Oliver Bashour and Luke Bixby, also qualified for a national competition based on the speed with which they were able to land perfect scores on tests for Microsoft Office Word and PowerPoint 2013. Four more Cavelero students achieved perfect scores in less than five minutes, as well. Bashour and Bixby’s closest competitors for getting to the Microsoft Office Specialist U.S. National Championship were their own classmates.
“You’re a very competitive person when you get to that level,” Coulombe said. “And six of them. It’s unusual to find six kids that intense on succeeding.”
The tests given to students are the same ones used for industry certifications. A number of jobs require them, or ask applicants to take a similar test, Coulombe said.
She teaches about 120 ninth-grade students in her computer applications classes, and they’ve passed more than 500 of the exams this year, earning nearly 250 certifications. Some students have earned more than one, and some certifications require multiple tests.
Last year, Bailey Griffin became Cavelero’s first speedster on the Microsoft Office tests. He ended up at the national competition, the first student from Lake Stevens.
There are two qualifying rounds for the contest this year, in the fall and spring. For fall, students between 13 and 22 years old had until Dec. 15 to complete exams in Microsoft Office Word, Excel and PowerPoint, either the 2013 or 2016 versions. The highest and fastest scoring student in each category — six total — go on to nationals in Atlanta in June. Another six students can qualify in the spring, so there will be 12 from each participating state.
Coulombe’s students studied Word and PowerPoint 2013 this fall. She’s introducing Excel and the 2016 versions of the programs in the second half of the year, and feels confident more of her students can qualify for nationals.
It takes dedication, she said. Students have to overcome their frustration when they score less than 1,000 and keep trying until they get it. Then they repeat the test until their time is fast enough to beat others who also have perfect scores.
“It’s not for everybody. It’s like basketball or soccer or dance or anything where you have to do something over and over and over,” Coulombe said. “You think of a basketball player doing a layup over and over and over. Not every kid is going to practice that way. And this isn’t an easy test.”
Her class is more than computers, though. Students also do a project on a career that interests them, and they learn to build a resume, round up references and do mock interviews. Coulombe wants her students to finish school with certifications for common computer programs, and with a resume in hand and interview experience.
The Microsoft Office tests, with the school’s state ranking and multiple students qualifying for a national competition, show how teens can succeed in mastering real workplace skills when given the chance. She hopes to see the program grow in Lake Stevens, with more opportunities for students to learn the programs, certify and compete.
“I’m one teacher, I hit maybe 20 percent of our students, and, right now, it’s just ninth grade,” she said. “But we still managed to come out number one.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org