The Gift of Great Expectations

Times Staff Writer

Third-grade teacher Melissa Murray knows some people look at her kids and assume they will fail.

Nearly half her 19 students at Whitaker Elementary School in Buena Park are learning English. About three-fourths qualify for free breakfast and lunch.

As testing season takes over schools across the state for the next few weeks, teachers with such challenging classroom demographics -- more often than not a recipe for low test scores -- have a crucial need to create a testing environment that motivates their students.

State tests, which conclude a year of learning, determine how much extra money a school receives to help its low-performing students and give teachers valuable information on how to tailor their instruction to meet kids’ needs.


Title I schools such as Whitaker serve predominantly low-income students and have a greater challenge meeting accountability demands.

Still, Whitaker and other Title I schools -- which receive federal money for instructional programs -- often do surpass expectations. Whitaker is one of about 115 California schools that received Title I Achieving School status this year, given to schools with large numbers of poor students who make significant test score gains across all demographic groups.

Whitaker teachers credit added instructional time and reading programs for boosting the performance of their 700 students.

Key to that success is not lowering expectations for these students while meeting their special learning needs, Murray said.

“Where a child lives doesn’t affect their ability to achieve,” Murray said as her students read silently after a morning of math testing. “Kids will rise to the challenge of high expectations.”

For a school’s youngest charges, communicating the larger implications of their performance on high-stakes tests can be difficult. At Centralia Elementary School in Anaheim, another Title I Achieving School, Principal Cindy Chaffee urged kids to do their best at a Friday afternoon pep rally.

During the assembly, Chaffee and second-grade teacher Donna Nomann, who also is the school’s Title I program coordinator, jumped up and down and waved blue-and-gold pompoms at dozens of wide-eyed first-graders.

“We have something really special on Monday -- a big state test!” Chaffee yelled. The kids stared, then started cheering too. “Who’s going to try their hardest?” Hands wagged furiously.


Testing first-graders, which the state does not require, is one of many strategies schools use to boost their kids’ test-taking performance. In Garden Grove Unified, kids are taught to start guessing once there’s only two or three minutes left on a section and to constantly check whether they’re at the right place on the answer sheet.

Perhaps key to success is preparing students throughout the year, educators said, not waiting until testing day to give a crash course on test-taking strategies. Getting ready early also means that anticipation won’t traumatize the kids, said Barb Batson, principal of Carrillo Elementary School in Westminster, another Title I Achiever School.

“The last thing we want is for their little heads to be filled with anxiety, because then they won’t do well,” she said.

They need to do well on the test, they’re told, because their teachers need to find out exactly what they know and don’t know so they’re placed in the right classes.


Those who criticize tests for consuming valuable instructional time don’t understand the value of knowing what children’s needs are at a particular school, some educators say.

“Testing does infringe on instructional time,” Whitaker principal Terry Hay said. “But I truly feel assessment is necessary to drive instruction for the rest of the year.”

During test time at Carrillo, sustaining kids’ energy for two weeks is not easy, Batson said.

“We kind of try to center them before they start in, trying to build their confidence by assuring them they’ve been taught the skills,” she said. “You don’t want the kids getting psyched out.”


Chaffee credited the success-oriented climate at Centralia Elementary for the impressive gains her school has made in recent years, especially compared to schools with similar demographics. All that a Title I status indicates is poverty, she said, not ability.

“We have shown our children can achieve academically just like anyone else if we give them the tools,” she said. “Yes, it’s more difficult here because they come in with fewer skills. But they don’t come in any less intelligent.”