Looking to Score: Educators Stress Achievement Tests

Times Staff Writer

San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Terry Unrein was the keynote speaker recently at three student rallies at National City elementary schools.

But Unrein wasn’t there to talk about winning intramurals or to reminisce about famous battles with the Raiders. Rather, he showed up to encourage the hundreds of students to do their best on the standardized achievement tests they were to take the rest of that week, and he spoke on the importance of the tests under banners reading, “We’re Cheering for Our Test Takers” and “This Is the Week to Show What You Know.”

At Bell Junior High in Paradise Hills last month, Vice Principal Sam Wong coordinated a WAR (We Are Ready) week featuring lunchtime games such as Scrabble and Double Dare--in both seriousness and fun--to pump up the student body for its round of standardized testing this spring.


Hearty Breakfasts Urged

In the San Dieguito district in North County, counselors and assistant principals visited every classroom to let students know that both personal and district pride were on the line, and sent notes home to parents asking that children get a good night’s sleep and eat a hearty breakfast during the testing period. Student organizations at San Dieguito schools provided orange juice and other treats during test breaks.

Such preparations--made today at almost all San Diego County schools--represent the most visible aspect of a sustained, major effort by districts to get the highest scores possible on standardized tests.

Feeling the Pressure

School administrators are increasingly feeling the pressure to show higher scores because state and federal officials and, by extension, the general public emphasize the figures as the way to judge whether schools have done a good job with the additional money and attention they have received during the past several years.

Earlier this month, state schools Supt. Bill Honig and San Diego County Supt. Thomas Boysen held their own kind of rally at Sea World to trumpet higher standardized-test scores in the county as proof that school reforms and greater funding have paid off.

In most cases, the pep rallies, games and free brunches cap longer-term preparations to ensure that students are tested on what they have studied. Curriculums have been examined to see how well they dovetail with the material on the tests, and course contents have been changed accordingly.

“You’ve got to have both an optimum environment for taking the test and make sure that you are assessing what you are teaching,” said Van Riley, principal of Diegueno Junior High School in Encinitas.

William Berrier, district superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District, added: “Whether we like it or not, we are compared to our neighbor (schools) in the county and the state, and compared nationwide based on these tests. Mr. William Bennett (U.S. education secretary) gets up in front of a group and points out those districts that may not do as well as others. . . . Funding and performance are now so tightly tied together.”

Berrier has particular reason to know the importance of test scores. Seniors at San Dieguito High last year decided to protest a school policy on attendance by not taking a set of achievement tests seriously. The result was plummeting scores--at a school known for high achievement--and red faces by administrators.

Many educators have expressed concern at the trend toward more systematic state and national testing, which is being pushed by politicians who want evidence that more money will lead to improved education.

“Yes, we are putting too much reliance on norm-referenced tests, but they are the only things we have been able to identify so far that shows whether or not schools are making progress,” said Tom Payzant, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District.

“Because in the (1970s) we lost credibility in terms of subjective judgments we made on how well we were doing, it is going to take some time to build up that credibility again so that people will listen to teachers and administrators as professionals, and not expect that there are always nice, neat numbers to be found,” Payzant said.

And, as long as standardized testing plays such a major role, schools have a strong obligation to make sure that students do well, administrators argue.

“We used to herd the kids into a gym and give them a lap board and that was it,” Berrier said. “Today we want comfortable places for the kids to go, to have a reasonable environment, to make sure that the kids like the setting, and to provide treats.”

‘Appropriate’ Preparation

“It is unfair to leave students unprepared if we can legitimately prepare them,” said Kermeen Fristrom, head of basic education curriculums for the San Diego district, the nation’s eighth-largest with 116,000 students.

“There has to be a clear delineation between what is inappropriate and what is not in preparing,” Fristrom said. “Inappropriate means teaching specific items that are on the test, any access to tests ahead of time or any blatant activity that makes a mockery of the testing process.

“But matching the curriculum to the test and giving test format preparation, exposing students to the kind of questions that will be on a test, the way in which they are stated--that is appropriate, since many students could otherwise miss out by not being familiar with the process.”

All districts say they stick to those or similar guidelines in preparing their charges for the two major standardized tests given throughout the county.

One is known as CAP, the California Achievement Test, which third-, sixth-, eighth- and 12th-graders statewide take each spring as part of a massive measure of the state’s educational pulse. CAP results are reported for each grade at a school but not for individuals, and are intended to measure basic skills of groups to determine whether the math, English and social studies goals set by the state Department of Education are being met.

The second test is the CTBS, or Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a product of the McGraw/Hill publishing company that is widely used throughout the United States. Over several days, students in various grades take a battery of tests that measure seven skills areas. The exam is intended to gauge strengths and weaknesses in terms of academic objectives that are thought to be standard across the nation. Individual scores of students are combined to measure school and district performance in the academic areas.

Teachers and administrators continually smart from criticism that, in preparing students to do well on these tests, they are teaching to the tests.

“Certainly we are teaching concepts that will be evaluated on these tests, but I have no problem with that or with practice tests using types of questions on past tests,” said Berrier, reflecting a broad consensus.

Diegueno Principal Riley said that, in the past, “there were concerns rather that we were testing on items that we had not covered yet or were not in our district’s curriculum, but that has now been remedied, and I think that is the biggest help for our students.”

For Joseph Farley, principal at Palm Junior High School in Lemon Grove, realigning the curriculum has led to significant gains in scores and the honor this year of being recognized as a distinguished secondary school in the state.

“Regarding CAP, we found some things that the state thought we should be covering in history that were not in our curriculum,” Farley said. “In many areas, we have changed the entire instructional program.”

In the South Bay elementary district, Supt. Philip Grignon has achieved substantial gains in student scores not only through curriculum changes, but through a strict monitoring in which teachers meet with their principal once a quarter and review the progress of each student.

“All of our teachers must submit lesson plans on a regular basis and show that the objectives are being taught that will either meet or exceed our previous performances on the tests,” Grignon said.

“That is not teaching to the test, but is common sense. How can we hold kids accountable if we are not teaching them what we are going to test them on?”

Bob Raines, a San Diego city schools testing specialist, said the content of the CAP test is driven by curriculum, not the other way around, as critics frequently claim.

“Teachers from throughout California have gotten together over the years and established state frameworks in math, history, etcetera,” Raines said. Those frameworks represent the consensus of educators as to what general themes should be taught at each grade level, he said.

“Then the test itself is based on the frameworks. So if, for instance, the math framework says that decimals are an important skill that sixth-graders should master, then that is something that CAP is going to reflect, and kids should have learned that.

“If the test shows that kids are having problems, then you know that the curriculum is not getting across in terms of teaching technique.”

No Test Covers It All

However, both Raines and Fristrom emphasized that curriculum writers for the district must state that they have never seen the test for the grade level for which they are writing classroom materials.

The curriculum link to the CTBS test is less clear because the exam is a nationwide test not based simply on state frameworks.

“It has to have a wider appeal, and we simply have to pick the (standardized) test that comes closest to our curriculum,” Raines said. “That’s why we caution that no test is going to cover everything that you are teaching, and very few, if any, can test thinking processes.”

Fristrom, although critical of the emphasis placed on standardized tests, said the CAP has moved toward a broader measurement of skills with its eighth-grade writing sample test.

“It is not only a good assessment, but it also shows the proper way to prepare, since the state itself puts out an instructional program that teachers are to use to show examples of the types of writing that the student may face on the test,” Fristrom said.

San Dieguito schools participated in a full-scale trial of a combined CAP-CTBS-style exam this spring that allows both group and individual skills to be tested at one sitting.

“We are one of 30 districts (in the state) with it this year,” Berrier said. “That made our test preparations even more important this year since we put aside CTBS, and therefore our kids had to really consider this testing important.

“It created a certain amount of additional anxiety because we were pulling away and doing something new,” he said.

In varying degrees, those anxieties will persist for years in all districts, administrators say.

“I can remember very vividly when I was still teaching when I walked into my classroom one day and found a 2-foot stack of paper on my desk that was a test format practice for the CAP exam,” Fristrom said. “I took it over to my principal’s desk and said I never wanted to see this again, albeit in a polite way.

“I felt that I was a good teacher, that I was teaching things that students needed and that, along the line, they were learning enough to do well on the CAP tests, and I didn’t need any of that nonsense.

“Today, if I were still teaching and were to do that with the principal, I think the principal would respond in a less understanding way because of the pressures and tell me to take the stuff back and use it in the classroom.”