Ponder Elementary School students understandably were bummed when they heard their principal, Janell Wilbanks, hadn't made a video ahead of this year's State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, tests.

They didn't know Wilbanks already called in some reinforcements.

"How many of you have heard the 'Ponder' song?" the principal asked during a Monday morning assembly, referencing a popular parody video depicting life in the small town.

Nearly every tiny hand shot up in the air.

Moments later, the three Ponder High School seniors who made the video - Sam Norwood, Sam Hutcherson and Tye Schluter - walked into the gym, bolstered by the applause kids would give to Disney Channel stars. They were there to debut their newest creation - a STAAR-themed music video meant to take the pressure out of the high-stakes tests they'll take this week.

Produced by Hutcherson, the video features Norwood and Schluter as their alter-egos "The Norwegian" and "Tye $wi$h" rattling off tips to ace the STAAR: Get a good night's sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, bring pencils, read the questions carefully and take your time.

"You've done this a million times, so don't be scared. You'll be fine," raps Schluter in the video, flanked by a parade of dancing children. "Just pause and think and read each line. You're a champ. You're gonna shine."

Motivational videos like these crop up around test time each year. Back when the STAAR went by a different name and Tim Duncan was still on the floor, the San Antonio Spurs encouraged students to relax and do their best. Locally, Denton ISD counselor Kelli Hauser, known on YouTube as Lady Hauza, made headlines with her riffs on Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" and Macklemore's "Thrift Shop."

Wilbanks says motivation is essential for kids taking the math, reading and writing tests on Tuesday and Wednesday. High schoolers also will take similar tests called end-of-course exams.

"The intensity and rigor of the STAAR test is so much more than it used to be," said Wilbanks, who has been the principal at Ponder Elementary for 22 years. "It's a lot of stress. They know there's a lot riding on this."

Even as a growing number of parents, educators and legislators denounce the STAAR test, it can be a make-or-break exam for some Texas students. The results from the test can determine if a child goes to summer school, takes remedial courses or advances to the next grade.

The tests also play a large role in how districts are graded by the state. A new "A-F" rating system expected to roll out this summer will use STAAR scores to rank schools on things such as student achievement, graduate preparedness and closing the gaps between low- and high-performing students.

Hutcherson, Norwood and Schluter all remember the anxiety they felt whenever they had to take the "big, bad STAAR test," as Schluter called it. So when their basketball coach asked the trio to put together a video, they jumped at the chance.

Norwood and Schluter started off the school year by making raps for their basketball team. Soon, they teamed up with Hutcherson for the "Ponder" music video, set to the tune of "Thunder" by Imagine Dragons. Released in February, the video already has more than 6,000 views, or roughly four times the population of the town it parodies.

"It started as kind of a joke, but it took off way more than we thought it would," Schluter said.

Despite their newfound celebrity - or actually, because of it - the boys spent Monday morning acting as cheerleaders for the younger kids. They hope their song can offer some relief to students who get stuck on a question.

"That's what it's all about," Norwood said. "As long as they're laughing or dancing and not stressing out, then we've done our job."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.

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