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State’s Standardized Test Spurs Scattered Backlash

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Scattered resistance to California’s Stanford 9 testing program is popping up statewide as teachers, parents and students protest a system that they say values test scores over actual learning.

At the tiny Santa Monica Alternative School House, parents of more than 60% of students in second through eighth grades chose not to let their children take the test this month, saying they considered it a waste of time.

In Colton, a dozen teachers at one elementary school plan a novel use for the nearly $600 they will each receive in state reward money for boosting Stanford 9 scores: They’ll hire a consultant to alert parents to the evils of the test.

And in affluent Marin County, north of San Francisco, enough students asked to be exempted from testing earlier this spring to render their two high schools ineligible for state rewards for at least two years.

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Testing opponents say the budding backlash in California and other states should send a cautionary message to Congress as it evaluates a plan to induce states to expand standardized testing. The House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to make such testing for elementary and middle schools a condition of federal education aid. Only 15 states, including California and Texas, now test children as often as the bill would require.

Advocates of testing say education reform demands such tracking. But many teachers in California say they are under such pressure to raise scores that they end up “teaching to the test.” Thoughtful lessons are thrown out in favor of less challenging drilling, many say. Those hurt the most, opponents say, are poor and minority children, the groups that are supposed to be aided by education reform.

These teachers and a core of parents across the nation are irked by a variety of standardized tests--from high school graduation exams to multiple-choice tests for second-graders.

Earlier this month, hundreds of eighth-graders in Rochester, Ithaca and Scarsdale, N.Y., boycotted state-mandated tests. Massachusetts parents gathered on Boston Common to protest a new round of state tests required to earn a high school diploma, and several highly ranked Michigan high schools face the loss of state accreditation because so many students failed to show up for testing.

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Last year brought anti-testing protests small and large in Maryland and Virginia.

“The California debate is about too much testing and inappropriate tests that don’t match the state’s curriculum,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor.

This spring, about 4.4 million California public school students in grades 2 through 11 are taking the Stanford 9, a basic skills test that is graded against the results of a national sample of students. The state uses schoolwide Stanford 9 scores to compile its Academic Performance Index, which ranks schools on a scale of 1 to 10.

Under Gov. Gray Davis’ school accountability program, schools and individual teachers can reap rich monetary rewards if students’ test scores reach targets set by the state. The rewards range from a modest few hundred dollars per staff member, including custodial help, to as much as $25,000 per teacher at low-ranking schools that score big gains.

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Responding to complaints from individual educators, teachers unions and testing experts, California has been reevaluating its program. Davis recently endorsed state legislation that would significantly alter the Stanford 9 program.

Under that proposed measure, California public school students in grades 8 through 11 would take a far shorter form of the Stanford 9. Among other changes, results on the core Stanford 9 test would gradually be played down in favor of scores on standards-based tests that would better assess how well students are meeting the state’s academic standards. The state is also looking into merging the optional Golden State honor student exams with the Stanford 9 in an effort to cut down on the massive amount of testing that high school students face.

Some teachers and principals have convinced parents that it is in their children’s best interest to boycott the Stanford 9.

In April, Peggy Bryan, principal at Sherman Oaks Elementary School in Campbell, near San Jose, sent a letter to parents explaining how to seek exemptions from the test for their children.

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Seventy percent of students at the school did not take the test, Bryan said. The low percentage tested means that the school will be ineligible for cash rewards.

But that suits Bryan. “I consider it blood money,” she said.

George Sheridan, a second-grade teacher in the Black Oak Mine Unified School District in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has already given the $591 he received from the state to Cal-CARE, a grass-roots group of teachers and parents working to oppose the tests, as have four other instructors in his district.

Formed last spring, Cal-CARE (which stands for California Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education) encourages teachers and parents to fight the tests. The group raises money by selling bumper stickers and T-shirts that say “High Stakes Are for Tomatoes”

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This spring, members of the group have been involved in anti-test demonstrations in Marin County, Oakland and Los Angeles, as well as in teach-ins in San Jose and Sacramento.

At Santa Monica Alternative School House, students wrote letters to a newspaper to protest.

“I did not take the test, because I find no benefit in it,” wrote Hanna Bellini, 11. “Some schools study for months, and it’s a total waste of time.”

Proponents of testing say they are mystified.

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“To me it seems there is overreaction to being held accountable,” said Christopher T. Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit group in Washington that promotes high academic standards.

Cross said he supports the idea of a national testing requirement.

“It will help us to know more about where the successes are being achieved and where attention needs to be given for improvement,” he said.

Still, test opponents say policymakers ignore grass-roots protests at their own peril.

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“When these pockets of resistance in California connect up, they will be a powerful force pushing back against the test-everything-that-moves crowd,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for Fair Test, a nonprofit organization that serves as the national hub for assessment reformers and protests against standardized tests.

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