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Educators Laud Alternative to Stanford 9 Test

Schools: Capistrano teachers say exam linked to pupils' skill level, not grade level, is key to growth, while state version is too general.


As the state's standardized testing program comes under mounting criticism, a few school districts have been quietly using a separate model that proponents praise as superior.

In the Capistrano Unified School District, one of the first in the state to administer the alternative test, educators say students have raised academic achievement by a grade level in the six years since the program was adopted.

"It really is an accountability tool for us," said Austin Buffum, deputy superintendent of education in the south Orange County school district. "If you devise a system that focuses on growth, guess what? Achievement grows."

Last month, the Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts voted to look at alternatives to the controversial Stanford 9 test, a major component of the Academic Performance Index. The annual index ranks schools and determines who gets monetary awards based on gains. Any such move would be largely symbolic; statewide standardized testing is mandated under California law.

The Stanford 9, due to be replaced next year by a similar test, has been criticized as discriminatory against poor and minority students, many of whom attend overcrowded schools and speak little English.

Buffum said the test works as a general measuring device but is too imprecise to be useful in the classroom.

The district's test, given in addition to the Stanford 9, measures similar basic skills such as reading, language and math.

Like the state test, it compares the performance of local students against a national average. But unlike the standardized test, the Capistrano exam is tailored to a student's skill level, not the grade level.

So while all fourth-graders in California take the same Stanford 9 test, for example, students in Capistrano take tests that differ in difficulty level, depending on their skills.

If the Stanford 9 is a measuring stick that determines where most students in a certain grade fall, the Capistrano tests are a set of incremental rulers that pinpoint each student's growth throughout the school year.

The difference is crucial in providing a curriculum to students, Capistrano officials said. The Stanford 9 mostly tells teachers whether their students are average--seldom a revelation to school administrators.

The yearly Stanford 9 results "are a foregone conclusion," said Silvia Mazzeo Pule, principal at San Juan Elementary School in San Juan Capistrano. The campus, where 86% of the students are still learning English, ranks toward the bottom of the academic index. The state test, Pule said, "doesn't guide instruction at all."

In contrast, the district test is given three times a year to keep tabs on what students know and what they need to learn.

The district test is credited with increasing San Juan's performance in the Stanford 9s. The school has met its growth targets two years in a row.

But it is not only low-performing students that benefit from the targeted approach, Capistrano officials said. Students who score high on the Stanford 9 should still have improvement goals.

"We cannot bask in the results" of Stanford 9, said Helene Dykes, principal of Tijeras Creek Elementary School in Rancho Santa Margarita, which ranks among the highest in the state's academic index. "We are being rewarded for good demographics."

Dykes' staff use the district test to determine what children are ready to learn.

For example, two years ago, 84 fifth-graders were ready to take algebra lessons in the sixth grade. Last year, the number doubled to 169.

"This clearly represents a slice of what we are talking about," said Jeffrey Bristow, executive director of elementary instructional services.

"Teachers are teaching more precisely....It is much better than throwing award money at it."

The Capistrano test is based on a model developed by Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Assn., a nonprofit group formed in the mid-1970s by school districts in search of better assessment tools.

The association keeps a databank of 40,000-plus test questions that districts can choose from to design exams around their curriculum and cultural sensitivity.

For example, a district in Southern California would probably not choose an item that uses snow to pose a test question.

More than 800 districts in 32 states, including 20 in California, have used or use the test, according to the association, but to varying degrees.

Capistrano administers the exam from second through eighth grades.

Alameda City Unified School District, the first to adopt the test nearly a decade ago, gives the test only at low-performing schools.

"It gives more information, better information, sooner," said Donna Fletcher, Alameda's spokeswoman.

Buffum said he agrees with the need for school accountability, "but why not adopt a system that actually helps students learn?"

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