Santa Ana, CA—Kids across Orange County began taking the Stanford 9 tests last week, marking the second year all California students in second through 11th grade have been required to take the exams.
This year, however, the stakes are higher for schools and students, new questions have been added to the tests, and _ some educators say _ students are better-prepared.
Second-graders at Edison Elementary School, for example, spent weeks learning tricks to taking multiple-choice tests. Before they saw any questions, students in Sue Cogan’s class reviewed ways to get more answers right.
“Make your best guess,” said Anna Chavez, 7.
“Don’t give up,” added Sal Sanchez, 7.
“Concentrate hard,” said Jacqua Ruiz, 7. “Go to bed early and eat breakfast. “
Edison Assistant Principal Vicky Larson said she hopes scores will rise at least five points from last year, when second-graders at her school ranked in the 22nd percentile in reading.
“I think that’s realistic,” she said. “I don’t think you’d want to shoot lower than that. “
The 50th percentile is the national average on the tests. Across Orange County, students in all grades but sixth, seventh and eighth scored below the national average in reading.
If every student answered one more question correctly on the tests this year compared with last year, Orange County would beat the national average in every category in every grade.
Larson gave several reasons for believing that her students will do better:
Teachers are more familiar with the tests’ content and questions.
Students taught full time in English because of Proposition 227 are likely to do better on the tests, especially at schools like Edison, where two-thirds of tested students are English learners and most of them were taught in Spanish last year. About 25 percent of the Orange County students tested last year spoke limited English.
Teachers spent hours on test-taking skills that have been shown to raise scores.
“We definitely encourage them to guess, to watch the time, to fill in all the answers,” Larson said.
In other districts, school officials have adjusted their curriculum to help raise scores. This year, Huntington Beach Union High School District reinstituted classes in reading, the only category in which district students trailed the national average.
“That’s something we haven’t taught in high school for years,” said Jerry White, Huntington Beach’s director of curriculum. “The fact that people are aware it’s a problem is going to make a difference. “
Schools will be giving the exams until mid-May, devoting as much as six hours of class time for each student to complete the battery of tests.
Grades two through eight take tests in reading, math, language and spelling. Grades nine through 11 are tested in reading, math, language, science and social science.
The state plans to use the Stanford 9 for five years. Before last year, California students took an alphabet soup of tests _ CAP, CAT, CLAS, CTBS and ITBS, among others. School officials said they feel more pressure to raise scores on the Stanford 9 because all schools in the state are using one yardstick.
“Now we know people are looking at scores as a means of evaluating schools, and (the Stanford 9 score is) about the only number the public ever sees,” said Sally Melton, principal of Kennedy Elementary School in Santa Ana, where students received “magic” gold pencils to inspire higher scores.
This year’s tests will also include new questions based on grade-by-grade standards in math and language arts.
Gov. Gray Davis has proposed, and the Legislature seems ready to endorse, using the scores in an accountability plan: to rank all schools in the state, to offer $ 150-per-student rewards to schools with high or rising scores, and to threaten an outside takeover or closure of schools with low scores.
Beginning in the 2000-2001 school year, Stanford 9 scores will be a factor in whether students must attend remedial education classes, summer school or repeat a year in school through a state law ending so-called “social promotion. “
The Stanford 9 tests also could form the basis of Davis’ proposed high school exit exam, which would be required before seniors would get a diploma beginning with the class of 2004.
Gregory McGinity, spokesman for the state Board of Education, said using one set of exams to measure many things can help schools spend less time on testing and more time on learning.
“Certainly, the board is not in favor of over-testing students,” he said.