It's less than a month until the dreaded Maryland School Assessments, and all the students at Catonsville Middle School can talk about are the playoffs.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
These playoffs aren't for the school's incredibly popular boys and girls , but instead the Vocab Olympics, a school-wide competition that pits homerooms against one another in a test of words that students may see on the state exams.
The playoffs start next week and the competition culminates in a school-wide pep rally complete with mascots and colors on the Friday before the tests start.
The approach may seem untraditional, but Principal Michael Thorne said the competiton has brought the school together to focus on improving test scores.
"We're trying to get the kids to be motivated to want to do better. We tell the kids, 'We want you to do better,'" Thorne said.
Students accumulate tickets and points by defining words that they may see on the exam. Words are divided up by grade level. The competition is built around the goal of the opportunity to get as many tickets as possible.
The words can be given out in the hallway when a teacher spots a student doing a positive deed. Students also compete for words during physical education class.
On Thursday, students were given words in between stations during a gymnastics unit. If they defined the word correctly, they were given a ticket to put in their box. Scores are accumulated by homeroom.
Physical education teacher Ryan Nazelrod said he thinks the program has really helped students see the link between physical activity and learning.
"They really like the competition," he said. "When you're physically active, it makes you so much more inclined to learn."
Nazelrod said he is happy to have the program be such a large part of the students' physical education curriculum.
Nazelrod said he feels it's important for every teacher to help students prepare for the tests, no matter the educator's subject area.
"They're still learning physical education, but they're also learning new words at the same time."
The Vocab Olympics isn't the only way the school is helping students prepare for the test.
Students who need additional help to improve their scores in either reading or math are participating in the MSA Blast program, which is another way the school is prepping for the MSAs.
This week students were graphing linear equations as their mentors helped them through web cameras and microphones.
Math teacher Stephen Ambrose said the program has been highly successful.
"Having them work with students is sometimes a little bit easier," he said. Students often respond positively to an older student teaching skills he or she has recently learned, he said.
At the end of the program, students take a field trip to the high school to meet with the mentors.
The school staff efforts have paid off. Catonsville Middle School now has more than 90 percent of students passing the tests.
With just two weeks to go until the pep rally and finals for the Vocab Olympics, students are excited, Ambrose said.
"I think [the pep rally] helps them blow off steam," he said. "It's really good for them to get out that bottled up stress."