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INSIDE STORY

The Mysterious Stanford 9

California's New Scholastic Test Is Supposed to Evaluate Our Children, Our Schools, Our Teachers. So Why Are We Forbidden to Know Its Contents?

March 05, 2000|ROBERT A. JONES | Robert A. Jones' last article for the magazine was about the gradual reemergence of urban life in Los Angeles

One day last summer, I opened my mailbox to find a thin envelope containing the results of the Big Test. The moment felt, as they say, like deja vu all over again. Many summers before, in my last year of high school, a similar envelope had arrived at our house in Tennessee. Feeling slightly lightheaded, I had carried that one unopened to the backyard, where I sat down under a tree and ran my fingers along its edges. Inside were my SAT scores, numbers that would dictate a great deal about my future.

I did not know then that the SAT was, in the lexicon of exam makers, a "high stakes" exam, but I would have understood the concept. At that moment, the stakes could not have been higher. The test would determine whether I went to a faraway college or remained in a hometown I desperately wanted to escape. As it turned out, I did get away. And though I'm no longer certain about the wisdom of the flight, I was forever impressed by the power of those numbers to propel my life in the desired direction. It seemed like magic, especially because I was convinced my success sprang not from high-octane intelligence but from a sly talent for decoding the test's mind set and supplying the expected answers.

This new envelope brought results of a different order. The Big Test was the Stanford 9 rather than the SAT. And the scores were not mine but my son's.

It will come as no surprise to most parents in California that I felt equally lightheaded as I lifted this envelope from the mailbox. If anything, the Stanford 9 looms larger in the lives of California schoolchildren today than the SAT did in mine. The Stanford 9, being administered to grades 2 through 11 now through late May, has become the ubiquitous Big Brother test for every public school kid in the state, assigning scores that will be tattooed on the child's permanent record.

And those scores will be employed in unprecedented ways. Unlike the achievement tests of yore, administered largely to assess the performances of school districts as a whole, the Stanford scores will be used to rank students individually. The Los Angeles Unified School District is sending out a cheery letter this year informing parents that their children could be refused promotion if they don't meet certain standards.

And that's not all.

As Stanford 9 scores begin to compete with classroom grades as a measure of academic performance, they will play a role in all the crucial passages of school life from the assignment of teachers to opportunities for gifted programs and magnet schools.

In other words, the Stanford 9 has blossomed into a very high-stakes test indeed. Even teachers and principals can feel its power. Teachers whose students consistently produce low scores may well find their careers derailed. In January, last year's scores were converted by the state into something called the "Academic Performance Index." Let the cumulatives fall low enough, and your school could be taken over by the state.

We have asked for this, of course, in the name of school reform. Education has a habit of falling prey to each generation's notions about learning, and our generation gravitates toward control. We want to know exactly how our children perform relative to those in Illinois or Maryland, we want to identify deficiencies quickly and we want the power to correct them. Thus we test and test. That may be OK, at least in principle. But here in California, an odd mystery sits at the core of the testing mania. That mystery involves the Stanford 9 itself. Virtually no parent in California has ever seen, or ever will see, the test that now passes judgment on our children. The Stanford 9 is kept as secret as the formula for an atom bomb.

I'm not talking about the necessary security that surrounds the taking of the test, but a much broader, more profound secrecy that envelops Stanford 9 at all times. Even after the test is administered, its contents are hidden from all but a few education bureaucrats. The used copies, millions of them, are locked up and eventually are returned to the publisher, Harcourt Educational Measurement in San Antonio, Texas. The secrecy is so severe that we are even prevented from seeing practice versions of the test produced by Harcourt. The very nature of this test is hidden from us.

Why make a big deal about seeing the Stanford 9? There are several reasons, all flowing from the paramount role that the test now plays in California's education.

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