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Stanford 9 Tests Students' Minds, Nerves


Santa Paula High School teacher Paul Spinner gave his 11th-graders a few last-minute test-taking tips Wednesday morning. Answer every question. Don't spend too much time on any one. Erase extraneous marks.

"And everyone smile while you're taking the test," he said, prompting grins on a few nervous students' faces.

Public school students throughout Ventura County are nibbling on their pencils, tapping their toes and biting their fingernails this month as they color in bubbles on the statewide Stanford 9 test, designed to measure students' knowledge in math, reading, language arts, science and social science.

But students aren't the only ones anxious about the results of the standardized test, being administered this spring to about 4 million second- through 11th-graders in more than 8,000 California schools. Because of Gov. Gray Davis' state accountability law, teachers and administrators are feeling the pressure too, and are doing whatever they can to raise students' scores.

Teachers in some schools set aside the regular curriculum for weeks to prepare students for the exam. Other schools hire outside experts to show students test-taking techniques. Still others hold workshops on standardized testing. In one Ventura County school, even first-graders are getting trained in how to take the multiple-choice test.

Under the governor's education plans, Stanford 9 scores will play a big role in ranking schools. While the lowest-scoring schools could be eligible for assistance programs the first year, they could eventually face funding cutbacks, staff reassignment or the principal's removal.

Many education officials say the stakes are too high.

"Because of those high stakes, people tend to try to figure out how to get their scores up," county schools Supt. Chuck Weis said. "That could mean cheating, coaching or changing answers."

In Texas earlier this month, a grand jury indicted the Austin Independent School District for document tampering after school officials allegedly changed student data to hide low scores.

Although the situation in Texas is extreme, Weis worries that local schools are tailoring their curriculum to the material on the test.

For nearly eight weeks, teachers at Santa Paula High have spent 15 minutes every day drilling students for the exam. They began testing Monday.

"Everybody is looking at your scores this year," Principal Tony Gaitan said. "So we're focusing on testing and making it a priority."

What Weis and other educators would like to see is an exam that better reflects the curriculum. Last year's version of the test was not linked to the state's academic standards. This year, it does include questions that mirror new reading and math standards.

Larry Birdsell, principal of Conejo Elementary School in Thousand Oaks, said he is encouraging teachers to continue focusing on the regular curriculum and avoid "teaching to the test." Conejo's students took the Stanford 9 test last week, and are doing make-ups this week.

"You can either spend your time teaching kids how to read and write or you can teach them to take a test," Birdsell said. "And I prefer to teach them to read and write."

This is the second year of the Stanford 9 test, published by Texas-based Harcourt Brace. The test yields scores for individual students, schools and districts. It is administered in English to all students, even if they are not fluent in English.

Last year, superintendents from San Diego to San Francisco protested that testing limited-English students wasn't fair, since their scores affected the entire school. But officials maintained that all students are required to take the test. Now, limited-English scores are separated from others.

This year, educators all over the county have focused on getting all children, as well as their parents, better prepared for the Stanford 9.

Like many schools, Campus Canyon Elementary School in Moorpark sent a letter encouraging parents to make sure their children get a good night's sleep, eat a healthful breakfast and get to school on time.

"There is a little extra stress on the students, so it helps if we have parents helping support them at home," said Diane Dempwolf, county director of curriculum. "The main thing is to have the kids in class."

But she said other factors can affect test scores as well, including students' attitude, language proficiency and familiarity with the test format.

The first-grade students in Mark Larson's class at Lincoln Elementary School in Ventura are getting an early introduction to multiple-choice tests. Wednesday morning, they practiced filling in bubbles on a practice test.

"That's right," Larson said to 6-year-old Christian Mason as he marked the correct answer to a question about what a fish does. "It's like a bubble machine. You are all experts already."

"Yeah. I'm in the 10th grade," Zeke Ivers, 6, said as he giggled.

Larson said by next year, when their scores count, he expects that they will be comfortable with the test.

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