Tests can be a springboard for schools

Stanford 9 is not perfect, but consider the alternatives

DEAR parents:

Please don’t let your child take the Stanford 9, the annual statewide test for all second- through 11th-graders.

He’s bound to do poorly, since you’re poor, uneducated immigrants and he’s not fluent in English. There’s no reason to risk his self-esteem just to find out how awful his reading and math skills are. What are we supposed to do with the information? Change how we teach? I don’t think so.

Give your child a few happy, carefree years before he drops out of high school or fails the graduation exam, or perhaps flunks out of a job training program. He’ll have many years of failure in his semi-literate future. Why let him fail now?

Besides, it’s not fair to compare our students to the national average. Our kids at San Pobrecito are BELOW average. And if you and other parents let your subpar kids be tested, our school will look bad compared to schools with middle-class students. We’ll look even worse compared to schools that haven’t given up on teaching low-income students.

The public is too stupid to understand that some students are harder to teach than others. They’ll just beat us over the head with low test scores, blaming US for YOUR kids’ failure.

If enough parents opt out of testing, the state’s accountability system will collapse. Then we can go back to the good old days when pressure was low, self-esteem was high and nobody noticed that the “student of the month” couldn’t read, add or speak English.

Principal, San Pobrecito Elementary School

I am making this up. The folks trying to kill the state’s testing and accountability system aren’t this forthright about the assumptions underlying their argument.

The 1999-2000 Academic Performance Index, a ranking of all public schools in the state, was released today. Rankings are based on the Stanford 9, a nationally normed test. Schools get extra money from the state for improving scores; low-performing schools that don’t improve face state intervention.

Anti-testers want to destroy the index by persuading parents to boycott the Stanford 9. If 11 percent of students opt out of the test this spring — only 1 or 2 percent opted out last year — the data will be invalid and the index will be doomed.

The anti-testers say the Stanford 9 doesn’t measure everything we’d like students to know.

No. It’s not practical to measure everything. The Stanford 9 does assess basic skills in reading, math and, in upper grades, science and social studies. Basic skills aren’t enough. But they’re essential.

Critics say some questions don’t match state standards: U.S. history questions appear on the 10th grade exam; California students study U.S. history in 11th.

True. But Stanford 9 is aligned with state reading standards in the early grades and with state math standards through 7th grade, says John Mockler, interim education secretary.

Questions linked to state standards have been added to the Stanford 9. By next year, the Academic Performance Index will reflect the extra English language development questions; the following year, standards-linked math, science and social studies questions could be counted as well.

Eventually, the index also will measure factors such as graduation rates and attendance.

Critics also complain that all students are tested in English, even if they’re not fluent.

Yes, that lowers scores. But it’s useful to know how students are progressing in the language in which they’ll need to succeed.

By the end of second grade, when the test is first given, most of the 1.4 million “English learners” aren’t newcomers. Only 28,000 statewide have been here for less than a year, Mockler says. Some are pretty darned fluent: 22 percent of “English learners” in second grade tested at or above the 50th percentile in reading, and 34 percent tested at or above the 50th percentile in math.

When the state doesn’t test immigrant students in English, we know what happens. Nothing. No pressure. No accountability.

“A disaster for achievement,” Mockler says.

Fundamentally, anti-testers see test scores as a way to humiliate disadvantaged students and their schools.

The underlying assumption is deadly: Schools can’t teach. Students’ academic success is foreordained by their parents’ income, education and English fluency. Tests just show what we already know: These students are losers.

I don’t believe that. Test scores are information pointing to what’s working and what needs to be changed. There are schools where similar kids are doing well, even compared to a national sample with few “English learners.”

What are successful schools doing? Using the index, I’ll explore that question in a future column.

Across the United States, most parents back testing and standards — even if their own kids have to attend summer school to earn promotion to the next grade — according to a new survey by Public Agenda. They don’t believe ignorance is bliss.

You can find data on local schools — how they ranked and how much they improved — in today’s paper. The statewide index is at www.cde.ca.gov/psaa/api.

—————————————————————————- —- Joanne Jacobs is a member of the Mercury News editorial board. Her column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. Write to her at 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, CA 95190, or e-mail to [email protected]

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