Southern California teachers agreed in interviews Thursday that they are under pressure to improve standardized test scores, but were divided on whether that pressure is to blame for the cheating disclosed this week by state education department officials.
While none condoned changing students' answers or coaching pupils during standardized testing, several educators criticized an increasing trend to treat test scores as the most important measure of school quality.
State Department of Education officials on Tuesday revealed a recent investigation of suspiciously high test scores at 40 elementary schools statewide on the 1985-86 California Assessment Program test of basic reading, writing and math skills. The test is given annually to students in third, sixth and eighth grades.
The department suspected tampering when a computer check found an abnormally high number of erasures on student answer sheets from the 40 schools. In at least one of the districts involved, Los Angeles Unified, a separate district investigation not only confirmed that cheating by teachers and an aide had occurred at seven schools but that staff at 11 additional schools also had acted improperly during the testing.
None of the individuals involved in the cheating statewide or in the Los Angeles district have been publicly identified. No formal disciplinary actions have been taken.
At 10th Street School near downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Ilene Weise, who teaches a combination third- and fourth-grade class, said much of the pressure she feels comes during preparation for the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the annual districtwide testing program.
"I feel that there is definite pressure. There have been meetings between teachers and the administration here to go over scores. We are asked why the kids are not performing to grade level. . . . Lately we've had to devote 20 to 30 minutes a day to prepare the students."
Diana Cotter, a fifth-grade teacher at Brooklyn Avenue School in East Los Angeles, said emphasis on raising test scores has increased over the last five years since a flurry of reports were issued by state and national education commissions about the need to make dramatic improvements in public schools.
"I have worked in a situation where the administrator tried to be threatening and intimidating. (He said,) 'Your test scores have gone down this year and you just have to do something about it,' " she said. "If a teacher feels insecure or if she is being (evaluated), then she might consider doing something."
Wayne Johnson, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, said he has heard reports that principals place undue pressure on teachers to produce better scores. "Teachers are told if you don't raise your scores, you are a bad teacher," he said, but added that this isn't necessarily so. Test scores are only one measure of student progress, he said. "I've never felt pressure from the administration here," said Julie Cornell, a second-grade teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles. "In my classroom, testing is no big deal. Sure, it looks great if the school as a whole is increasing. But I don't personally buy into the theory that testing helps the student or builds esteem."
Maria Hernandez, a third-grade teacher at Tweedy Elementary School in South Gate, said she was distressed that some teachers might feel they have to cheat to improve their students' scores.
"It's bad . . . (to) get to that point, " she said.
In San Diego County's Carlsbad Unified School District, Supt. Thomas K. Brierley denied that any tampering occurred with test scores at Jefferson Elementary School, one of the 40 named in the state's investigation.
"The fact that we scored very well on tests other than the CAP with this same group of kids was omitted from this (investigation). I resent this."
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Michele Fuetsch, Mark Arax, Laura Kurtzman and H. G. Reza.