Anaheim High School student Isaac Becerra could earn a $1,000 scholarship this year if his Stanford 9 scores are tops in his class.
Lead custodian Jesse Altamirano at San Juan Elementary School stands to make an $800 bonus if his school’s scores rise enough.
And San Juan’s teachers, who celebrated their improved scores last week at a reception, expect to qualify for $25,000 bonuses – each. Capistrano Unified School District officials estimate that the school, which ranks among the bottom in the state, scored five times above its target.
“Obviously, teaching, we’re not in it for the money,” said teacher Jessica Serna, who plans to pay off student loans with her bonus. “So, something like this is surprising.”
Statewide results on the Stanford 9 test are scheduled to be released at noon Monday, triggering for the first time $914 million in bonuses, scholarships and grants that the state’s politicians are using as the carrot in a 2-year-old program to improve schools.
Schools will find out if they are eligible for those awards after statewide rankings, based on Stanford 9 scores, come out in October. Those rankings could eventually lead to punishment for some schools that could lose money or even be taken over by the state if they don’t improve. But now cash is on the table for those that do well. Gov. Gray Davis has signed into law all the rewards except the scholarships, which he supports.
While educators say they appreciate any extra cash, many are concerned about rewards tied to a single test — especially one that doesn’t necessarily reflect a child’s total performance in the classroom. Others worry that such gifts may lead to cheating and unhealthy competition.
Even San Juan’s teachers, who could be among the 1,000 teachers statewide eligible for the top bonuses, are hesitant.
“I hate to see people have the wrong motivation or teach to the test,” said third-grade teacher Dionne Bargabus.
The robust bonuses are meant for teachers in schools like San Juan that rank in the bottom half of the state but make gains of at least twice their targets. San Juan boosted scores more than any other school in the Capistrano district, from the teens and 20s last year to the 30s and 40s this year. Teachers in schools that make the very largest jumps statewide will get $25,000, while others can make $5,000 or $10,000.
Some San Juan teachers said the money should go directly to the school, which has about 88 percent English language learners and about 94 percent economically disadvantaged students. Julia Gerfin, a fourth-grade teacher, said she would probably spend much of her bonus on her classroom.
“You spend so much money on your classroom anyway, it would be nice to give back to the school,” Gerfin said.
The Stanford 9 is part of a push that began in the mid-1990s with national tests showing California’s students ranking near the bottom in reading and math. Classes were reduced to 20 students through the third grade. A system called the Academic Performance Index was created to measure students’ progress and rank one school against anotherusing the Stanford 9.
The system soon will add other measures, including a mandatory high school exit exam. Last week, the state Board of Education approved a plan that would make tests based on the state’s own standards, rather than a national test, the main component of the API in 2002-2003.
Davis doesn’t want to wait for everything to be in place before offering incentives, said Ann Bancroft, spokeswoman for the office of the Secretary of Education.
“We really needed to get started. The governor wants to see improvement in student achievement,” Bancroft said.
Other states use test scores to punish or reward schools with mixed results, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States. But universally, testing experts and educators discourage states from basing them on just one test.
And California’s system for the time being is heavy on rewards rather than the sanctions common in other states. The only schools that face punishment are those that applied for grants to help them boost their rankings – 430 statewide, including five in Orange County. An equal number is expected to be added next year.
“The goal is improvement,” Bancroft said. “We believe in incentives for improvement.”
States with bonuses have yet to show that they produce higher achievement. Most give bonuses of just a few thousand dollars, said Carolyn Kelley, an expert on school-based performance pay and a researcher for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. She said $25,000 bonuses are too much.
“If you’re using one measure of school performance and putting a huge bonus attached to it, you’re giving teachers a very strong incentive to drop everything and focus on getting the score up, period,” said Kelley, associate education professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“I think that’s dangerous,” Kelley said.
Nationwide, California would be the second state to base its merit scholarships solely on a test; others also factor in measures like GPA or class rank. The only other state with test-based scholarships – Michigan – is facing a court challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union claiming that the program discriminates against minorities.
In California, educators also are worried that the scholarships, as well as teacher and school bonuses, could favor wealthier schools because standardized test scores tend to be higher in wealthier areas. But the scholarships would go to the top 5 percent of high school students in the state and the top 10 percent of every high school, which could guarantee access to some low-income students. Statewide, about 105,000 top-scoring students could qualify, possibly 11,000 in Orange County.
Becerra, 17, is one of them.
The incoming senior attends Anaheim High School, a campus that posted among the lowest school scores in the county. About half the students are English language learners.
But he scored in the 80s and 90s, posting a 99th percentile in math, the highest possible score. Becerra, who speaks Spanish as his first language, said the scholarship could help toward his goal of going to a four-year college instead of a junior college.
And he thinks the scholarships would help other students at his school.
“The thing is, at my school, it’s like everybody has economic problems,” Becerra said. “The kids are really bright, really optimistic about their future.”
Dahm Choi, 17, an incoming senior at the college- preparatory University High School in the Irvine Unified School District who also scored in the 90s, said he thinks the scholarships for the top state students could go to students who don’t need them – like himself.
“As far as the Stanford 9 as a gauge, I just feel that it’s just not fair,” said Choi, who plans to apply for Ivy League schools.
“It’s pitting wealthy students, like the ones attending University, perhaps against the people who haven’t had a tenth of the privileges.”
The scholarships, though, could encourage students to try hard on the Stanford 9, said Al Sims, who handles testing in the Garden Grove Unified School District.
Some students blow off the test because they don’t see its relevancy, especially when they are also taking SATs and Advanced Placement tests.
The Capistrano district notified parents about the possibility of scholarships, said Jeff Bristow, Capistrano’s executive director of elementary instructional services.
“There’s not a great buy in for high school kids on this,” Sims said. “I think the scholarship program might well trigger some motivation for some high school kids to perform well.”