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High schools offer grade boosts to students who improve test scores

A voluntary program at 39 L.A. campuses allows students who improve test scores from one achievement category to the next to qualify for a higher grade.

May 24, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Javier Castillo, a junior at Francis Polytechnic Senior High, attends an AP class. Thirty-nine schools participate in the grade program.
Javier Castillo, a junior at Francis Polytechnic Senior High, attends… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

High schools are offering a new deal at 39 Los Angeles campuses: Students who raise their scores on the state's standardized tests will be rewarded with higher grades in their classes.

If it works, schools also will benefit because low scores can lead to teachers and administrators being fired and schools being closed. A proposed teacher evaluation system relies specifically on these tests for part of an instructor's rating. Even the new superintendent's salary, and his tenure, are tied to scores on the California Standards Tests, which are administered this month.

Yet for students, these tests don't affect grade-point averages, graduation requirements or college applications.

Test scores frequently decline sharply after elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the grade-boost strategy, officials hope, could at least address student apathy toward the tests.

"We're always looking for a way to motivate kids to do better in school," said Jefferson High Principal Michael Taft. "I'd see them bubbling in carelessly and say, 'Are you reading that question?' They would say, 'No I'm tired.' They had multiple excuses."

He estimated that 50% weren't trying hard.

The voluntary program being tried this month allows high school students to qualify for a higher grade when they improve their scores from one achievement category to the next: from "below basic" to "basic," for example, or from "proficient" to "advanced." The idea began with Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott under then-Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. If successful, it will probably be expanded districtwide by Supt. John Deasy.

Jefferson High, south of downtown, started the grade-incentive program on its own last year. The low-achieving campus had been on the verge of being handed over to an outside organization, but Taft and his faculty retained control of their campus with a reform plan that they now have to carry out.

About 400 of 1,600 Jefferson students earned one or more improved grades last year. Taft expects that number to increase, as a result of this and other initiatives. Only teachers are allowed to change a student's grade, and some initially resisted, Taft said. They didn't want to bail out a student who hadn't put forth effort in class.

Critics say such incentives are ineffective or unseemly or that they exacerbate an over-emphasis on standardized tests.

"The predictable consequence will be even more teaching to the test in order to boost scores and grades, with a resulting decline in educational breadth and quality," said Robert Schaeffer of the Massachusetts-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

As a rule, incentive programs don't violate state law, said John Boivin, who oversees testing for the state education department. Anecdotally, he's heard concerns about how inflated grades could affect competition for admission to colleges.

At Jefferson, Anthony Vasquez raised his ninth-grade geography grade from a B to an A. This year, the 10th-grader hopes to improve his history grade from a C to a B.

"I thought the tests weren't important," Vasquez said. "Now that they did this, I thought, 'I'm going to try hard on this one.' " He said he also studied more in class leading up to the test.

Ultimately, incentives provide only temporary benefits, said Alfie Kohn, author of "Punished by Rewards," who has reviewed relevant research. "The more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward."

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, characterized the results as mixed: "Sometimes it looks like kids respond and other times they don't."

"If you have something like this that will motivate a subset of kids, you probably should do it," he said.

In New York, the performance of students on state Regents exams in five subject areas is linked directly to earning a diploma.

The L.A. Unified plan also applies to Advanced Placement tests, which are nationally administered. L.A. Unified students who take AP classes already benefit from "weighted grades," meaning that they receive more points per class, which can significantly raise grade-point averages. Under the new plan, a "passing" score on the college-level AP exams will allow students to achieve an automatic A in that course.

"It gives us the opportunity to get that A we wanted," said Scott Sadeghian, a junior at Polytechnic High in Sun Valley. He's muscling through five AP classes. "These courses are pretty rigorous and we do try."

But paying cash for performance — an idea being tried in Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere — would go too far, said students and teachers interviewed at the two schools.

"If you pay students to get good grades," said Poly junior Javier Castillo, "they might view education as merely a way to get money."

Howard.blume@latimes.com

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