When the state announced last year that it would give cash awards totaling $14.4 million to schools that raised their test scores and tested more students, some local educators privately expressed the fear that average scores would fall because more low-achieving students would be taking the exam.
At many schools, the opposite occurred.
In Los Angeles County, 12th-grade scores improved on the California Assessment Program test of basic skills, and although the rise is slight, it brought a sizable financial payoff.
One hundred and nine county high schools have won a total of $3.7 million in bonus money. The big winner was Rowland High in the east end of the San Gabriel Valley, which collected $140,818, by far the largest payoff in the county, from the Education Improvement Incentive Program.
In the Southeast-Long Beach area, test scores at nine high schools improved enough to land cash awards ranging from $10,821 at Mayfair High in Lakewood to $71,846 at Cerritos High.
Schools qualified for the cash awards if at least 93% of their seniors took the exam and the scores were generally better than those of last year's seniors. Districts who wanted to compete for the cash pool also were required to hire outside personnel to monitor the testing, which takes place annually in the fall.
This year's testing, however, produced mixed results at a majority of high schools from Long Beach to Whittier, with writing, reading, spelling and math scores either below or only slightly better than last year.
Two local districts--the Whittier Union High School District and Paramount Unified--even decided not to participate in the cash-for-CAP-scores program. Of 51 districts in the county with seniors, Whittier and Paramount were the only school systems that did not test for dollars. Officials in both districts maintained that it is "grossly unfair" to give cash bonuses based on a single year's scores, without considering past performances.
"We started working hard on bringing up test scores three years ago, and the payoff was a year ago when our scores were among the best in the state," said Paramount Supt. Richard Caldwell. This year's scores for the district's 450 students fell dramatically in all four skill areas tested.
"It would have been next to impossible to duplicate last year's numbers," the superintendent said. "Yet, shouldn't we receive something for our showing last year?"
Supt. Norman Eisen of the Whittier Union High School District agreed: "The program rewards those who failed to come to grips with the problem (of low test scores) when it first surfaced. Now, when there's money on the table, they decide to get serious."
Many educators said they believe the cash incentive program played a big part in the improved scores and the increased number of students taking the test.
Statewide Scores Up Too
Statewide, 12th-grade scores in reading, writing, spelling and mathematics also rose this year compared to last year, even though many more high school seniors took the test than before.
"There was a lot of discussion around here about what would happen with the scores" because of the cash incentive, state Department of Education consultant Sue Bennett said from her Sacramento office. "Apparently, they (12th-graders) took the test with better preparation. Or they took it more seriously."
At many high schools, administrators made a special effort to get at least 93% participation in the voluntary exam. Some schools staged rallies, some promised hamburger vouchers and others offered pep talks to 12th-grade classes.
"They did whatever they thought would work," said Bill Turner, testing consultant to the county superintendent of schools. "And in the main it worked."
At Cerritos High, principal Stanley Steddom said seniors were told about the cash awards before testing began but officials made no promises about how any money received would be spent.
"Some kids tried to win concessions for their participation, but we felt that wasn't appropriate," said Steddom, who hopes the $71,846 the school collected will be spent on computers, desks, typewriters and a field trip for seniors. "After all, they earned it."
Scores in all skill areas tested improved at Cerritos, with the largest gains in math and writing.
Although a success at some campuses, the incentive program backfired at one high school in Chico, where four seniors persuaded many of their fellow 12th-graders to deliberately fail the test when the administration said it would refuse to let them use a portion of any bonus funds earned for a beach trip. No such cases were reported in Los Angeles County, however.
County Seniors Improved
Test scores for the county's high school seniors rose from 59.4% to 60.1% in reading, 59.8% to 60.5% in writing, 68.0% to 68.3% in spelling and 64.3% to 65.3% in mathematics.
The scores were slightly below the state averages. The average scores statewide are 62.9% in reading, 63.2% in writing, 69.7% in spelling and 68.3% in mathematics.