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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Getting Testy

State's Yearly Stanford 9 Exam Ritual Frustrates Teachers and Students Alike

April 18, 2001|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — Pump them full of pancakes and promise them pizza.

That was one of the strategies employed by Oxnard Union High School District officials as they kicked off crucial Stanford 9 testing Tuesday, attempting to motivate spring-fevered teenagers to shoot for better scores.

In each of the Oxnard district's high schools--all of which failed to meet state goals on the standardized tests last year--students lined up for a free early-morning hot cake feast before spending hours hunched over test sheets.

Other incentives offered by the district this year include cash rewards for any ninth-, 10th- or 11th-grade class that exceeds the state average score.

But even as educators dreamed up new ways of getting students to take the exercise more seriously, they fretted about the focus on test-taking.

"Life is not a multiple-choice test, but the state seems to think it is," said Steve Blum, a teacher at Foothill High School in Ventura and president of the Ventura Unified teachers union. "It's a very, very poor way of judging performance in schools."

Still, for now, the Stanford 9 scores are the only factor used to create the Academic Performance Index, the state's public ranking of schools. Schools high on the list are eligible for sizable cash bonuses, while lower-ranked schools may suffer sanctions such as reassignment of principals and teachers.

So the pressure is on, particularly in districts where scores have fallen below the state goal, as in Oxnard Union.

"It's difficult to motivate a teenager to take a long standardized test," said Oxnard Assistant Supt. Gary Davis, adding that officials believe apathy, more than lack of preparation, is responsible for sagging scores. "We hope these features we put in this year can perk them up."

At Adolfo Camarillo High School, officials promised a free pizza party to homeroom classes in which all students showed up for the test, in addition to the morning pancake breakfast. Colorful signs posted around the campus reminded them, "Try your hardest--test scores equal money," and wished them "Good luck on the big test!"

As she scarfed down what she swore were "the best pancakes ever," sophomore Chelsea Mata admitted it's hard to put too much effort into the test, knowing it doesn't count for a grade or college admission. But Chelsea, one of about 400 students who took advantage of the free pretest meal, said the breakfast was a "very nice gesture" that made her want to do her best.

"It counts for the school, and the teachers are trying really hard," she said.

Junior Ryanne Fortney, however, said she's looking forward to her last year of standardized tests.

"I don't really understand why we take them, and I think they're kind of a waste of my time," she said.

Many educators have bemoaned the state's emphasis on the exams, saying it's no measure of a good education.

It has caused class time to be spent drilling for test-taking skills, answering practice questions and focusing on concepts sure to show up on the test, they say. It has also added stress on already hard-working teachers and administrators, Blum argued.

"The only people who like it are politicians and real estate agents," he said.

State education officials say it doesn't have to be that way.

"The best test preparation is good classroom instruction, and good classroom instruction is one that focuses on the California standards," said Doug Stone, spokesman for the California Department of Education.

He added that the state is gradually moving toward putting more emphasis on tests that measure whether students are meeting state-recommended standards on a variety of subjects, rather than testing for basic skills.

Next year, for instance, the school rankings will include student performance in language arts. Eventually it will also include attendance and graduation rates.

"This is still a relatively new system, but we are moving to that point in time where the standards-based tests are as, if not more, important than the basic-skills test," Stone said.

The annual effort to gauge school performance will have elementary and high school students across Ventura County sharpening their No. 2 pencils now through June.

Roughly 4.4 million students across the state are expected to take the test this year.

Because of a new state rule that pushed back the test dates, most districts in Ventura County will begin administering the Stanford 9 next week and will wrap up by mid-May. Scores should be released in August.

Ethel Larisey, whose son is a junior at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, said accountability is important, but the sheer volume of testing has become overwhelming for many students and may be infringing on learning.

"It seems like from spring break to the end of the school year we are constantly testing the kids, which doesn't give teachers much time to teach the kids," she said.

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