by BOB DORAN
SPEAKING AT THE EUREKA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE DINNER LAST week, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein had this to say about education in California:
Three years ago the state of California embarked on just that path, "holding teachers and students accountable," when it instituted a statewide Standardized Testing and Reporting program known as the STAR test.
The latest results released earlier this month are even more important than the first two years of the testing program. This year the state has allocated $677 million to reward schools with improved performance.
Administrators and teachers are anxiously waiting to see how the state will distribute the awards. The projected budget suggests that money will go to schools that meet or exceed goals. And teachers whose students make significant improvement may be eligible for bonuses.
STAR results and, more specifically, the result of the Stanford 9 (SAT 9) test are used by the state to calculate the Academic Performance Index (API), which in turn is used to determine whether schools have met their targets. (See individual school STAR scores following this story.)
Student teachers at Jefferson School celebrating Dr. Seuss' birthday.
"The goal is for every school in the state to have an API of at least 800 in 10 years," said Eureka City Schools Superintendent Jim Scott. "This is regardless of whether they are in the war zone in South Central (Los Angeles) or in Palo Alto."
The goals for schools are based on a yearly growth index target, an advance by a minimum of 5 percent over the previous year's score. Those who meet the target numbers are subject to rewards. Those who don't are subject to sanctions.
"It's a carrot and stick thing," said Scott.
"The teachers feel stress because they know the school is going to be evaluated on test scores, they know that students are going to be evaluated and that the community and the public will be evaluating them as well. The whole system is under a microscope."
So, how did Humboldt County schools do?
"We did very well in the early elementary grades with test scores that showed real improvement," said Janet Frost, administrative assistant for the Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools Louis Bucher.
I wouldn't say we're teaching to the
"When it comes to high school our pattern followed that of the state -- that is, the high school students' test scores seemed to stay about the same, or in some cases actually went down in certain subjects. Of course that is a concern to everyone.
"On the elementary side it appears that some of the reforms seem to be paying off, especially class size reduction and some of the teacher education programs that have focused on implementing the new standards and curriculum for children in reading and math."
Part of the improvement is a direct result of studying the results of last year's tests, said Scott.
"I think we analyzed the scores from last year a bit better. We spent more time on it. We've been involved with experts and consultants in the field who have helped us evaluate data regarding the test and look for areas of improvement.
"We've used a multitude of intervention programs that have really assisted in student achievement -- reading intervention programs during the day, extended day and math improvement programs. Our district has community learning centers funded by a $2 million grant from the federal government. We run after-school programs with an academic focus in five of our elementary schools and both junior highs."
Many complain that the tests, which are based on a national norm or standard, are ill suited to California's population which includes a larger proportion of English learners. The percentage of "EL" in the national norm is 1.8 percent. In California it's 25 percent.
Third grade teacher Patrick Riggs, who teaches at Alice Birney School in Eureka, says that's just the first problem with the tests.
"(Alice Birney) has a pretty high population of limited English speaking students as well as low socioeconomic students. Those are groups that typically do not perform well on standardized, fill-in-the-bubble, skill-based tests."
Amongst the teachers I know, the
Twenty percent of the students at Alice Birney are English learners and 80 percent are signed up for the school's free lunch program for low-income families. Riggs says it's wrong to compare the scores of his students with those from a school like Jacoby Creek, where only 14 percent are on the free or reduced-price lunch program and less than 1 percent are English learners.
"It doesn't tell you anything about the ability of the teachers at either school," said Riggs.
"There are some parents who object to the test," said Scott. "Some feel that it discriminates against English language learners. There are others who feel that the test causes unreasonable stress on their young children and that it's not a true reflection of their academic growth. They object to having their students subjected to it. Children 8, 9 or 10 years old are worried that if they don't pass the test they are going to flunk.
"There are other issues," he said. "For example, second graders having to take oral instruction on how to take a particular test. They have to be able to listen to long and complicated directions to be able to properly take the test.
"And then we're requiring these kids to do four or five hours of testing. That's totally inconsistent with the way second graders learn and the way that the classrooms are organized and structured. Very rarely will you see kids that age on task on a specific assignment for longer than 15 minutes.
"What's best for the children is always central and foremost for us. We try and insulate and protect them from these different stressors, but at the same time we have to prepare them for an increasingly cold and cruel world."
Despite any problems with the STAR test, Scott concedes that it is a means towards achieving accountability.
"We have no problem with accountability," he said. "We just want accountability to be fair. We want the community to understand the wonderful work that educators do with what we have.
"Even though there are a lot of areas we can take issue with on the test, it's a test that all students in the state are supposed to take. So, like it or not, we're all in the same boat."
Scott emphasizes that, "The SAT 9 is just one piece of the curriculum, instruction and assessment alignment. We spend a lot of time thinking about what is going to be taught; that's the curriculum. We spend a lot of time on how we are going to teach it, that's the instruction. And we spend a lot of time on how we are going to assess if the students learned it. All three have to be aligned."
Some teachers and parents worry that since the improvement of test scores has become an undeniable goal, alignment works backward from there. Are teachers adapting how they teach and what they teach so that kids will be prepared for the STAR tests?
"It's only natural that they do," said Scott. "We see where kids are weak. Teachers will target specific areas that appear to be weak and work on them. I wouldn't say we're teaching to the STAR test, but we are teaching with the STAR test in mind. I think there's a big difference."
"It changes the way you teach dramatically," said Riggs. "Because the tests use only fill-in-the-bubble type questions, they are very closely tied to skill-based learning. You find that you work more on getting kids to be able to write a sentence that looks right as opposed to a sentence that has good content.
"For example: Do they know that a comma goes after every item in a sequence? Do they know that if they write about Aunt Jenny, the "A" in aunt and the "J" in Jenny are both capitalized? Those are skills. It's not thinking. It's memorization.
"You find that you do change how you teach and what you teach in order to enable your kids to be more successful on these tests. You spend more and more time on rote learning..
"I think that's bad for education. I think it's bad for the future of our society," Riggs said. "We need people who can go out in the world and think -- people who can be creative and come up with new ideas and synthesize information.
"The creative thinking behind the technology that has fueled the information revolution is the result of a different kind of teaching that was going on in schools in California. It was teaching to the mind and the whole person rather than to the A-B-C fill-in-the-bubble."
An important issue for Scott is providing a whole rounded education. "We're concerned about the arts and other subjects not getting the full attention that they deserve," he said. "We're concerned about school not being fun.
"Students who have particular talents must have an opportunity to star and to shine. We want students expressing themselves in the arts. We want them to be physically fit. When that opportunity is minimized it becomes a self-esteem issue.
"We want students to receive a full education, but at the same time we're trying to balance all of these balls with limited time and limited resources. That's another part of the stress."
Riggs feels that there is an inherent problem with the tests. Since they are set up in the multiple choice format they can't judge the most important part of the learning process.
"Things like the ability to think and reason things out or to make judgments are not easily tested and they are not things that are taught in a skill-based program.
"You cannot test creativity. You cannot test the growth of a human brain. You cannot effectively test problem solving or any type of higher level thinking skills with a test like this.
"Personally, and amongst the teachers I know, the overwhelming feeling is that these tests are bad for teaching and they are bad for education because they shift the focus to just one aspect of teaching.
"Certainly you want a kid to know enough so that they can fill out a job application or balance a checkbook. These are valuable skills that people need to have in our culture, but there is a lot more to learning and a lot more to teaching than just that kind of skill-based knowledge."
How did your school do?
THE RESULTS OF THE STATE STANDARDIZED TESTING AND Reporting (STAR) program's Stanford Achievement Test administered this spring in all California schools are posted at star.cde.ca.gov.
Total no. of students tested (county): 15,244
Total no. of students tested (state): 4,346,086
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