High-stakes stories?

tests.jpgI usually steer clear of schools when they’re taking their annual spring exams, so I don’t have a good sense of what the atmosphere is like during these high-stakes periods.

Some schools, I hear, organize i-Pod giveaways and other gimmicks to motivate kids to show up and take the tests seriously. Last year, Mt. Diablo High School in Concord held a controversial assembly in which kids were grouped by ethnicity (and pumped up accordingly).

What’s the scoop this year? Has anyone spotted mistakes in the tests (no need to be specific …), or come up with an unusual way to convince students not to bubble in random letters? Is anyone sharpening pencils in their sleep?

Please share your stories with us.

image from EAWB’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Catherine

    At my school, the second and third grade teachers (not all, one for each grade) said to their students: this is a test, this is only a test. This test does NOT determine the value of you as a person or the value of our school. Please do your best. If you do well on the test, then fine. If you do average on the test, then fine. And if you do not get a single answer correct, fine.

    You are still valueable, you are still learning and I am still proud of you.

    When the children took the practice tests, they did well overall, better than those children in the same grades in classes that did not send the same message. It takes great courage to be a teacher and say this to your class.

  • Nextset

    Catherine, like it or not, the Tests are used for sorting the students. And tests can show need for help or early advancement. The kids shouldn’t have these things hidden from them. We were told this in grades 2 to 6, I don’t remember a lot of drama over it. Low testing students got extra classes and summer school. High scoring students as well as the others often got summer school anyway but took different classes. Everybody did what they could and lived with the scores. No big deal.

    However I was in a classroom where the class didn’t have a large gap between the dulls and brights. Nor was there a significant racial gap in my elementary or high school (except the HS Jewish kids swamped everybody else academically). So there was none of this “stick with the race” business. Things may be different in the OUSD classrooms, I don’t know, I’m not there.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Yes, there are errors in this year’s test, just as there have been in every year since these tests began. Unfortunately it is illegal to discuss any test item with anyone so I cannot give examples; in fact, in past years when I tried to notify the State Department of Education about some errors, they refused to let me report the errors even to them.
    Maybe I shouldn’t complain. At least the tests arrived this year before they were scheduled to be given. Last year some Oakland schools did not receive their tests until after testing was scheduled to begin. Teachers had to spend hours rearranging schedules and sorting the tests for distribution, all without any compensation. The district had to hire extra drivers to bring the materials from the district warehouse, when it finally arrived, to the schools. Again ETS did not pick up the tab. When I wrote ETS asking for an explanation and an apology, I received no answer. ETS reminds me of the telephone company in the old Lily Tomlin spoofs: “We don’t care, we don’t have to.”

  • cranky teacher

    I really don’t like the tests or the vision of education behind them, but I do sometimes think that if we’re going to go to such enormous effort to do them we should do at least make them matter for the students and their parents somehow to force buy-in. Begging older children to take the tests seriously, sometimes over the objections of their parents, is ludicrous — especially when we ask them to care about their school’s future funding. When you were 15 did you care about your school’s future funding??!!

    Little kids are stressed out by these tests but do try hard. Big kids either don’t care, or are alienated by the idea that their school gets more funding if their test scores go up — which strikes them as bass-ackwards! The only high school kids who really try are those who excel at tests, and so it is like a game to see how good they can do, or those who are so ambitious that they want the new “gold star” award that comes with a high school.

    The biggest lesson we all are getting from the current setup is that school is a Kafkaesque comedy which builds cynicism and hopelesslessness in the majority of its inhabitants. Which I guess is about right.

  • Jose


    The test for our students in OUSD are sent to the warehouse on High Street over a month in advance. How can you blame the ETS when OUSD administrators does not get the test to your school on time?

    How can you suggest another organization should pay the bill for OUSD when our admistrators drop the ball?

    It appears you blamed and wrote your letter to the wrong people. Send the same letter to OUDS administrators for not getting the test to you on time last year.

    I bet they will give you the same responce as ETS. Good luck.

  • jim2812

    W. James Popham TRANSFORMATIVE ASSESSMENT (ASCD, 2008)asserts that standardized tests are designed to get a “spread” and that the method of achieving that spread is writing questions that differentiate by class. Selling the idea that passing these tests is valuable will not change the class based zip code outcomes that reflect American class differences.

    Jacking up the importance of testing has resulted in an interesting contradiction. It is the law to test but it is also the law not to practice for standardized tests such as the STAR testing program.

    California law requires that 25% of last years test items be made available. Oakland and other districts have encouraged schools to use these released items for practice–although it is against the law. Perhaps the administration wants to blind itself to the law that says not to practice because other districts are doing it and Oakland doesn’t want to be disadvantaged in a comparison. Sort of a steroid everybody-else-is doing-it defense.

    Ed Code 60611 requires that teachers can not prepare their students for the STAR testing unless they use
    materials that have testing prep embedded in the instructional materials they regularly use with their students.

    Chapter 854 indicates that familiarizing students with scannable test booklets answer sheets and the format of test items is allowable. However, practicing with previous test items is clearly cheating and a practice that the administration, I am told, encourages. In fact during a recent substitute teaching assignment I was left a lesson plan that included testing students on both math and language arts released test items.

    Jim Mordecai

    § 854. Advance Preparation for the Tests.
    (a) Except for materials specifically provided by the Department CDE or its agents, no program or materials shall be used by any school district or
    employee of a school district that are specifically formulated or intended to prepare pupils for the designated achievement tests, standards-based
    achievement tests, or the designated primary language test. No administration or use of an alternate or parallel form of the designated achievement test or
    the designated primary language test shall be used as practice for any pupils in grades 2 to 11, inclusive.
    (b) Practice tests provided by the contractor as part of the standards-based achievement tests and the designated primary language test for the limited purpose of familiarizing pupils with the use of scannable test booklets or answer sheets and the format of test items are not subject to the
    prohibition of subdivision (a).
    NOTE: Authority cited: Sections 33031 and 60605, Education Code. Reference: Sections 60611 and 60640, Education Code.

    60611. (a) A city, county, city and county, district superintendent of schools, or principal or teacher of any elementary or secondary school, including a charter school, shall not carry on any program of specific preparation of pupils for the statewide pupil assessment program or a particular test used therein.
    (b) A city, county, city and county, district superintendent of schools, principal, or a teacher of an elementary or secondary school, including a charter school, may use instructional materials provided by the department or its agents in the academic preparation of pupils for the statewide pupil assessment if those instructional materials are embedded in an instructional program that is intended
    to improve pupil learning.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Jose, you may be correct about when tests usually arrive at the warehouse, but last year some tests were delivered very late. I was on the phone to the warehouse the day after testing was scheduled to begin, and they had still not received the tests I needed. I have no trouble blaming the district for the things that are their fault, but ETS was at fault for the lateness last year, as they are at fault for the errors that repeatedly appear on their tests.