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Ventura County

Schools Try to Take Anxiety Out of Testing

Education: Breakfast, water bottles and cash awards are some things officials are using to boost state scores.


It's the most serious of academic weeks, but at one elementary school students were bubbling with excitement about their new personalized water bottles. At another, youngsters competed for the chance to attend a pizza party with a disc jockey. And on some high school campuses, teenagers answered questions in hopes of scoring cash for the prom.

As standardized testing season begins this week in Ventura County public schools, teachers and administrators are becoming more creative about how to engage students in the annual ritual that many of them dread.

"We're learning more effective practices for the test administration, and schools are learning more effective motivational techniques," said Valerie Chrisman, who is working out of the Ventura County superintendent of schools office to help five schools lift test scores. "Anything that helps the kids relate to the test, I think that's a good idea."

Chrisman declined to say which schools she is working with.

Countywide, more than 100,000 second- through 11th-graders will spend the next several days hunched over Stanford 9 and "standards-based" multiple-choice exams, a key component of Gov. Gray Davis' school accountability program. Because improvement can mean cash rewards for campuses, the stakes are highest at those schools that failed to boost scores last year.

At Santa Paula High School, for example, students have spent each day during the last two months in a new 30-minute test preparation period, being drilled on basic math and language concepts. School officials have sponsored rallies, given out pencils stamped with encouraging messages written in English and Spanish, sent home letters to parents and even taken out ads in the local newspaper with sample test questions.

"We wanted to make sure it was a school-wide effort," Principal Tony Gaitan said. "We are totally focused on one common goal, which is improved test scores."

Similar efforts are underway at schools across Ventura County, even as many educators continue to criticize the emphasis placed on standardized tests.

In Oxnard and Camarillo, school officials provided free pancake-and-sausage breakfasts for high schoolers on six campuses Tuesday, the first day of testing. They also promised that the class at each school with the biggest jump in scores would get a donation to its prom fund.

At Ventura's Lincoln Elementary School, some second- and third-graders received a "test-taking first aid kit" that included a pack of Smarties candy to "boost test-taking brain power," a sticker to "help stick with the task at hand" and a pencil to "record the knowledge you have learned."

And at Conejo Elementary School in Thousand Oaks, students who showed good test-taking skills--including thoughtfully answering questions and using extra time to check work--earned stickers on a checklist that they could cash in for an end-of-the-week pizza party.

"What everyone is trying to do is reduce the stress," Chrisman said. "It should be nothing more than showing what you've learned all year, and that's the message we want to give the kids."

Gimmicks and incentives aside, school officials also say they have worked hard to align what they are teaching in the classroom with the standards-based material in the state tests.

They have purchased new textbooks, incorporated good test-taking skills into daily lessons and, at the high school level, tried to stress basic language and math skills across other disciplines.

Ron Dietel, a spokesman for the Center for Research on Evaluation Standards and Student Testing at UCLA, said researchers have not been able to determine why Stanford 9 scores have been difficult to increase among ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders. Many administrators believed it was because teenagers are less motivated, but recent studies have proved that theory false, he said.

"It really leaves an important question as to what can be done to improve student performances at the high school level," Dietel said. "At this point we really don't know, and at best, we're guessing."

Since the state's testing and accountability system began four years ago, educators have criticized it for being too dependent on the results of one multiple-choice exam, which only measures how students do compared with a nationwide pool of test-takers.

That was in part because the Stanford 9 was the only basis for the Academic Performance Index, a public ranking of schools that determines a school's eligibility for rewards or potential for sanctions.

But starting this spring, standards-based tests--those measuring students' knowledge of specific concepts and lessons in math, language arts, science and history--will be incorporated into next year's index, said Les Axelrod, education research and evaluation consultant in the California Department of Education.

Meanwhile, the state board of education today will consider a recommendation to award the next testing program contract to a new company, New Jersey-based Educational Testing Services.

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