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State exams set schools off kilter

Student attendance is a major concern; so are dull pencils and the wrong scratch paper.

May 19, 2008|Jason Song | Times Staff Writer

Five-foot-two Erica O'Brien pushes a tall stack of gray cartons across the floor, straining as if they were full of coal, not tests. The office on the top floor of Banning High School is stuffy, even though it's only 6 a.m. But when the phone rings, O'Brien answers affably.

"Penthouse," she says.

That's what life is like these days for testing coordinators such as O'Brien. After weeks of preparing in the background, they suddenly become the most important person on campus. Students across the state last week took high-stakes standardized tests, which can bring a school glory through improved test scores, or, in the worst-case scenario, state sanctions. To make sure the tests go smoothly, O'Brien distributes tests, sharpens pencils and deals with the unexpected.

There's a note next to her computer screen that reads "Vomit."

"A kid threw up on his test, so we had to find him a new one. Poor guy," O'Brien explained.

STAR testing contributes to a campus' all-important Academic Performance Index rating and presents a big challenge to administrators. The results have no bearing on a student's academic record and aren't even available until August.

This contradiction isn't lost on the students. They know they could spend the entire testing time drawing smiley faces on their answer sheets or skip school altogether, which could be even worse because a campus is required to have 85% attendance for the test results to be valid.

So O'Brien also includes a small packet of raffle tickets along with the pencils and paper and attendance sheets in each of the 122 classroom bins. The school has a daily raffle, offering Jamba Juice gift certificates and other treats, and in June will have a party for test-takers. Other schools hold pep rallies, offer shorter school days during testing week, and send notes home urging parents to send their children to school after giving them a healthful breakfast.

Test results are especially important for Banning High in Wilmington. The school had trouble drawing the minimum number of students in 2005 and scored a below-average 567 on the API, which uses the standardized tests and other indicators to measure achievement in math, science and other subjects. Last year, more than 90% of students took the tests, and Banning raised its API score to 606. The state target score last year was 800.

Last week, more than 90% of the 2,822 students scheduled to take the test came to school.

"We want to keep the momentum going," said school principal Robert Lopez, who patrols the campus right before the bell rings, ordering students to class. "C'mon, mihijo, let's go," he tells one boy.

Even though students might be blase about these tests, teachers aren't. As they start trickling into the Penthouse to pick up their materials, their anxiousness is obvious.

The math tests were scheduled for Friday, the last day of testing, which clearly irritated some teachers who wanted the exam to take place earlier in the week when students were more fresh. "I had a new box of pencils. What happened?" one instructor asked when he discovered a handful of used writing tools in his box.

"You can tell the teachers really care," said O'Brien, who taught in New York for almost 11 years. "In New York, you don't do anything unless you get paid, but people here put in a lot of their own time."

Math coach Ana Hernandez came in at 6:40 a.m. to put grid paper in every bin. She spent Thursday night raiding Office Depot and Staples stores near her house to buy 3,000 sheets for students to use as scratch paper. (The state dictates that students can use grid paper, but not graph paper. Don't ask why and don't ask what the difference is.)

"The kids are tired of taking tests. We want to make sure they do their best," she said.

O'Brien, 38, started the job last year and says she faced a steep learning curve. She was so harried that she logged 60 hours of overtime over a two-week period. Worse, she brought muffins for the teachers. "That was a mistake," said O'Brien, who also moonlights as a wedding cake baker. She now brings eight dozen doughnuts every morning.

O'Brien has learned to make the process go smoothly. She put in only 10 extra hours last week and was relaxed enough Friday to sing along with the reggae music coming from a computer as she laid out the tests. "This is my Super Bowl week, and I'm the quarterback," she said.

She even had time to sip coffee and talk with colleagues who came to take a doughnut and a bin before hurrying to their classrooms before testing began at 7:45 a.m.

O'Brien's voice and attitude reflected her New York roots. "I forgot the mimosas, I'm sorry!" she said.

But as the magic hour approached, activity became more frantic and O'Brien's voice got a little harder, her face a little tighter, as people surrounded her desk, asking questions.

A girl was in the main office because she wasn't sure where to go. The teacher from Room 222 sent a student to pick up the tests, which isn't allowed. One teacher had too many tests, another not enough. The phone rang.

"Penthouse," O'Brien said wearily, as if ready for the week to end.

--

jason.song@latimes.com

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