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California and the West

School Testing Has Unintended Effects

Learning: Some teachers say they must cut corners elsewhere as students drill for the standardized exams. Careers can depend on the results, as can campuses' independence.

January 14, 2001|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's massive standardized testing program is having some unintended effects, both in and outside the classroom, results that have little to do with lawmakers' goals of improving education and boosting accountability.

At some schools, teachers have students read short passages instead of entire books because that's what's on the test. At other schools, lessons on science and social studies have been abandoned to make more time for drilling on test-related material. At an extreme end, the test scores are reaching beyond the classroom and cropping up in custody disputes.

"There's less and less teaching happening, and more and more test preparation," said Lorna Karagiozov, president of the Santa Ana Educators Assn. "It's administrative anxiety coming down on the teachers: 'You must do this; otherwise our school looks bad.' "

In Santa Ana, many elementary school teachers have forsaken science, art and music in favor of spending hours drilling students on reading, grammar and math, Karagiozov said.

Linda Kaminsky, head of curriculum, defended the district, saying the students are learning science, art, music and history--but they are also practicing reading as they learn those subjects.

As the state this week releases a new round of school rankings based on the test, it's easy to understand the anxiety that accompanies the Stanford 9 exam, given each spring to most students in second through 11th grades. Money and careers are on the line.

The Stanford 9 scores are, for now, the only measurement used to create the state's Academic Performance Index, which publicly ranks schools. Low-ranking campuses can be taken over by the district or the state and their principals and teachers reassigned. But schools that do well, or improve substantially, are eligible for huge bonuses, including as much as $25,000 for individual teachers.

On Wednesday, the state will publicize API data on how similar schools fared when compared with each other and how well they must do next year to qualify for rewards.

Most state officials and lawmakers are thrilled with the results of their new accountability program. They cheer about the rising scores across California. For the first time, the API has made schools accountable to the public, they say, and schools have responded by working harder.

But better scores don't equal better education, said Wayne Johnson, president of the 300,000-member California Teachers Assn. "And serious damage is being done to the quality of public education."

Still, public belief in the test scores is so strong that lawyers in custody disputes sometimes use the Stanford 9 to bolster their arguments for placing children.

In an Orange County case last year, a court-appointed psychologist cited Stanford 9 scores as one reason to place a 6-year-old with his Laguna Beach father instead of his Los Angeles mother.

Psychologist Russell Johnson wrote in his report, obtained by The Times, that he felt that Top of the World school in Laguna Beach would offer the boy a better education than Franklin Avenue Elementary School in the Los Feliz area.

As his backup for that assertion, he said that the "mean [Stanford 9] scores for all students are higher at Top of the World than at Franklin Avenue in all categories."

An architect of the API program, Jerry Hayward, said that's a "terrible misuse of test scores."

"The court-appointed psychologist should know more about testing than to use such a crude instrument," said Hayward, a consultant with Policy Analysis for California Education.

Scores Even Used in Custody Fights

It wasn't an isolated case: Ronald Anteau, a prominent family law attorney in Los Angeles County, said he uses Stanford 9 scores to evaluate schools for custody cases.

"It's a tool," Anteau said. "One of the things that a good family law practitioner is going to do is use every tool that is out there."

More often, the Stanford 9's power is altering what goes on behind the classroom door. For teachers, high scores equal money and prestige; declining ones spell shame and occasionally reassignment. For students, low scores can mean stints in summer school or even repeating grades.

The result is test obsession that has stolen the joy and creativity from their work, many teachers say. Long-trusted lesson plans that excite students have been ripped up and new ones frantically created to meet the demands of the multiple-choice exam. Some worry that they are transforming students into a generation of nervous, test-obsessed drones.

"I've been here 30 years, and I've never before felt this kind of terror," said Margaret DeArmond, a math resource teacher in the Kern High School District. "There's a sense of feeling threatened, but not knowing what they should do."

In her job, DeArmond talks to many of the district's teachers, and they are not happy. "Quite honestly, a lot of them are wondering if teaching is the profession for them," she said.

Sally Stickler's eighth-graders study only one novel a year now, instead of several.

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