School Testing Has Unintended Effects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's massive standardized testing program is having some unintended effects, both in and outside the classroom, results that have little to do with lawmakers' goals of improving education and boosting accountability.

At some schools, teachers have students read short passages instead of entire books because that's what's on the test. At other schools, lessons on science and social studies have been abandoned to make more time for drilling on test-related material. At an extreme end, the test scores are reaching beyond the classroom and cropping up in custody disputes.

"There's less and less teaching happening, and more and more test preparation," said Lorna Karagiozov, president of the Santa Ana Educators Assn. "It's administrative anxiety coming down on the teachers: 'You must do this; otherwise our school looks bad.' "

In Santa Ana, many elementary school teachers have forsaken science, art and music in favor of spending hours drilling students on reading, grammar and math, Karagiozov said.

Linda Kaminsky, head of curriculum, defended the district, saying the students are learning science, art, music and history--but they are also practicing reading as they learn those subjects.

As the state this week releases a new round of school rankings based on the test, it's easy to understand the anxiety that accompanies the Stanford 9 exam, given each spring to most students in second through 11th grades. Money and careers are on the line.

The Stanford 9 scores are, for now, the only measurement used to create the state's Academic Performance Index, which publicly ranks schools. Low-ranking campuses can be taken over by the district or the state and their principals and teachers reassigned. But schools that do well, or improve substantially, are eligible for huge bonuses, including as much as $25,000 for individual teachers.

On Wednesday, the state will publicize API data on how similar schools fared when compared with each other and how well they must do next year to qualify for rewards.

Most state officials and lawmakers are thrilled with the results of their new accountability program. They cheer about the rising scores across California. For the first time, the API has made schools accountable to the public, they say, and schools have responded by working harder.

But better scores don't equal better education, said Wayne Johnson, president of the 300,000-member California Teachers Assn. "And serious damage is being done to the quality of public education."

Still, public belief in the test scores is so strong that lawyers in custody disputes sometimes use the Stanford 9 to bolster their arguments for placing children.

In an Orange County case last year, a court-appointed psychologist cited Stanford 9 scores as one reason to place a 6-year-old with his Laguna Beach father instead of his Los Angeles mother.

Psychologist Russell Johnson wrote in his report, obtained by The Times, that he felt that Top of the World school in Laguna Beach would offer the boy a better education than Franklin Avenue Elementary School in the Los Feliz area.

As his backup for that assertion, he said that the "mean [Stanford 9] scores for all students are higher at Top of the World than at Franklin Avenue in all categories."

An architect of the API program, Jerry Hayward, said that's a "terrible misuse of test scores."

"The court-appointed psychologist should know more about testing than to use such a crude instrument," said Hayward, a consultant with Policy Analysis for California Education.

Scores Even Used in Custody Fights

It wasn't an isolated case: Ronald Anteau, a prominent family law attorney in Los Angeles County, said he uses Stanford 9 scores to evaluate schools for custody cases.

"It's a tool," Anteau said. "One of the things that a good family law practitioner is going to do is use every tool that is out there."

More often, the Stanford 9's power is altering what goes on behind the classroom door. For teachers, high scores equal money and prestige; declining ones spell shame and occasionally reassignment. For students, low scores can mean stints in summer school or even repeating grades.

The result is test obsession that has stolen the joy and creativity from their work, many teachers say. Long-trusted lesson plans that excite students have been ripped up and new ones frantically created to meet the demands of the multiple-choice exam. Some worry that they are transforming students into a generation of nervous, test-obsessed drones.

"I've been here 30 years, and I've never before felt this kind of terror," said Margaret DeArmond, a math resource teacher in the Kern High School District. "There's a sense of feeling threatened, but not knowing what they should do."

In her job, DeArmond talks to many of the district's teachers, and they are not happy. "Quite honestly, a lot of them are wondering if teaching is the profession for them," she said.

Sally Stickler's eighth-graders study only one novel a year now, instead of several.

"We used to read 'My Brother Sam Is Dead,' and 'Shane' and 'A Day No Pigs Would Die,' said the teacher at Buena Park Junior High School. "Now we read short stories rather than full novels."

Gone too are the long, in-depth discussions of what a piece of literature means. Now, students answer multiple-choice questions, as on the Stanford 9.

Because of the test, Peter Schedlosky, a former social studies teacher at Nordhoff High School in Ventura County, stopped teaching students about the causes of World War I. Instead, he made sure they knew the dates the war began and ended.

"So what if you know a date?" said Schedlosky, who is now a middle school counselor. "Don't we want to prevent war? . . . It's really the concept of why the war started that to me is the most important thing."

This problem is compounded, teachers say, because the Stanford 9 test is not fully aligned with California's curriculum standards.

Architects of the plan acknowledge that the system has kinks, but promise that it will get better.

Just last week, legislative leaders on education announced that they plan to reevaluate the state's testing system because they fear it doesn't measure what students are actually learning. This spring, an additional language arts test will start counting toward the API. The extra test matches California's curriculum standards.

And the API is going to be expanded to include attendance and graduation rates, writing samples and perhaps even proof of good citizenship.

Balancing Students' and Teachers' Needs

Hayward, the education specialist who helped craft the API, said he sympathizes with teachers who say it's unfair to judge what their students learn on the basis of a single test. But the idea of holding teachers and principals responsible for student achievement is sound, he said.

"The public has a right to know what students know and are able to do," he said.

Some teachers agreed.

"Social studies and science and health are important subjects, [but] it's more important that a student know how to read," said Judy Emerson, who teaches fifth and sixth grades at Beatty Elementary School in Buena Park.

State officials also maintain that they have never wanted educators to "teach to the test." But teachers scoff at such assertions.

"When the state rewards and punishes schools based on test scores, you've created . . . an environment that is going to push people to raise scores at the expense of real learning," said Josh Pechthalt, a teacher at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

The pressure has driven a handful of teachers to cheat.

Seven schools across California have admitted to the state that cheating occurred on their campuses, said Doug Stone, spokesman for the California Department of Education. Thirty more are under investigation.

But one of the state's most honored teachers said she refuses to change what she does because of a standardized test.

"I teach my kids to think," said Cynthia Stern. The second-grade teacher at Peterson Elementary School in Huntington Beach recently became one of 786 teachers in California to achieve national board certification.

The current test preparation mania is "nuts," she said. "I think sometimes . . . we as teachers should say: 'I'm here with these kids every day, and I'm the expert and this is not the way it needs to be done.' "

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