San Diego The expression "high stakes" is a favorite idiom among San Diego educators these days. It doesn't matter if you're talking to people at the local, district, county, or state level -- if the subject is testing and accountability, you're going to hear that phrase. You'd think it was a poker game, all this talk about stakes. And it is, in more ways than one. Since even before Governor Gray Davis's Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA) was signed into law in April 1999, the state's program for measuring school performance has given rise to boasts, bitterness, tenuous allegiances, and bold cheating allegations.
Because, believe it or not, what's at stake in California's new public school accountability program is cash. Reward and punishment is the backbone of the PSAA -- see also Texas -- which has adults pointing more fingers than teary-cheeked eight-year-olds in the principal's office. In San Diego, the fallout from the most recent round of state testing, especially that surrounding an incident at Pacific Beach Middle School, has caused a media stir, which has done very little to elucidate who's to blame. Moreover, no one has emphasized in just how many ways the state's program fails students.
The cornerstone of the PSAA is the Academic Performance Index (API), a numeric index, ranging from 200 to 1000, which is supposed to rate school performance. Currently, a school's API is determined by a single standardized test, the so-called Stanford 9. (The California Department of Education claims that other indicators may be used in the future, but law requires that results on the Stanford 9 make up at least 60 percent of a school's API.) The Stanford 9 is an off-the-shelf bubble test that California and other states purchase from a private publisher.
In theory, this test can measure a school's adherence to the state's rigorous academic standards. Nearly every public school in California has administered the Stanford 9 to its students each spring since 1998. Using student scores on the test, the state assigns each school an API; if certain gains are made, the school and individual teachers stand to earn money through the Governor's Performance Award. If a school's API falls, it receives no cash award. However, if it's determined that a school did not administer the Stanford 9 properly, then the state punishes that school by denying it an award for a period of two years.
In October, the state announced that six schools in San Diego County and a total of 18 schools statewide were denied hundreds of thousands of dollars through this program because of alleged infractions of testing protocols that took place this past spring. The supposed breaches in the San Diego Unified School District ranged from a teacher at Scripps Ranch High School reading an exam question when giving directions at the beginning of the test to teachers at Baker Elementary School translating test instructions into Spanish.
(In 1998, the state Department of Education sued the San Francisco Unified School District over its refusal to administer the Stanford 9 to nearly 6000 students with limited fluency in English. The district challenged the state's testing requirement, contending that it violated those students' civil rights. Earlier this month, ending a two-year legal battle, the San Francisco School District agreed to give the test to thousands of students who are still not fluent in English.)
The most controversial irregularity took place in March at Pacific Beach Middle School. The school has been denied cash awards for two years because one of its most reputable teachers, Mark Heinze, allegedly supplied his class of gifted sixth-graders with questions from the Stanford 9 the day before the exam. The accusation turned the school inside out and exposed discord among San Diego educators. Some blame Heinze for costing the school what might have amounted to $150 per student, or $117,000, while others denounce a muddled accountability program and defend the teacher, who has won numerous awards, including San Diego County Teacher of the Year in 1997 and Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year in 1998. While Heinze maintained that he got the questions from materials he bought at a commercial bookstore and did nothing wrong, the school's principal, Charmaine DelPrincipe, argued before the district that he should be dismissed (the district disciplines, the state just takes money away). In the end, Heinze was suspended for five days and then transferred to the Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School.
Though the hearings divided local educators, the district officially supports the disciplinary action. David Smollar, the San Diego City Schools public information officer, says, "We're on record that we're proud of bringing forth violations. We don't want to be judged by artificially inflated scores. I'm sure that those schools that are ineligible in our district now feel pressure not to make the same mistakes again."
DelPrincipe, who retired from her position as principal at Pacific Beach Middle School in July, says that she was disappointed Heinze was not dismissed. "I think that if one teacher cheats then it's unfair for a whole school and the kids to lose access to the money," she argues. "The penalties have to be hard on the individual and not on the school. As it is, that's not the way it works; the individual does not get any penalty, or a little penalty, to tell you the truth. At one point everyone agreed that he should be dismissed.... But he's tight with [San Diego City Schools Superintendent Alan] Bersin, so it came back that no, he's not going to be dismissed.
"The administrative transfer came later, during the summer," DelPrincipe adds, "and was the result of some other things that happened. It had to do with the tenor of what would happen if he were to return to the school. Was it in the best interest of the kids that were still there? You have 19 kids who were in his class still there and who knew what happened."
According to Heinze's attorney, John Vanderpool, and to many local educators as well, the assumption that anyone "knows what happened" is precisely what reeks about this case. Vanderpool is reluctant to let his client speak about the incident because he fears how the district might respond. However, he points to what's already been made public -- that none of the tests were ever missing from Pacific Beach Middle School. There's a very stringent log system for the Stanford 9 tests, Vanderpool says, and the records show that there were no irregularities at the school. In fact, it has never been proven that Heinze did anything wrong.
San Diego school-board member John de Beck also defends the beloved teacher. "I don't think that Mark is that kind of person," he says. "I've said it before, and I'll continue to say it, Mark is welcome at any school in my district. I think it was unfair when he was transferred." Mr. de Beck adds that the penalty "looks to be more punitive than it needed to be."
Scott Chipman, who has sent three kids to Pacific Beach Middle School and sits on its PTA, is also incredulous. "The risk versus the reward is unbelievable," he argues. "What could have been his motivation? It's ridiculous to think that Mr. Heinze thought that the manipulation of a few vocabulary words would make or break his school. It's totally out of character for someone we've known for 15 years. Having had two children go through his classroom, and having known other parents who've had children go through his classroom, the vast majority of parents say he's extremely fair and extremely capable and has always acted in the best interest of his students. He attended ball games and has been identified by many students as being the main motivational force in their educational experience. He has been identified as being the force that turned on a light for a lot of kids."
Chipman, who's concerned about a number of problems facing Pacific Beach schools, sees the incident as another burden placed on the students. "There has been an innocence lost with the kids," he says. "They saw someone loved and respected by them treated unfairly. They have expressed that they are more suspicious of the system. That's a rude awakening for an 11- or 12-year-old."
One hopes it becomes a rude awakening for the state as well. While the incident's impact is mostly local -- Mr. Heinze has been forced from a school he loved, his students have lost a rare teacher, and San Diego educators are playing a juvenile game of tag -- it also exposes deep fissures in the foundation of California's accountability program.
"The concept of rewards and punishments is so popular because the whole mentality of America is to find out who's guilty," de Beck says. "Who's responsible totally for underachieving kids? The answer is nobody, and nowhere in this country have they mastered that. They've touched on it here and there, but across-the-nation testing is not leading to any improvements."
Moreover, de Beck says, the state's program is backward. As it's set up now, the API simply rewards schools that already perform well and punishes those that need more resources. "If one school is doing better than another, and they have the same demographics, then let's deal with it and don't go into penalties and rewards. To say that this school that is doing better deserves financial rewards and the school that is doing worse deserves to be penalized -- that doesn't work." Especially peculiar is that the state bases this system of rewards on a single standardized test. As the testing program manager for San Diego City Schools, Bob Raines was responsible for investigating the alleged security breaches in the giving of the Stanford 9 last spring. In the Heinze case, Raines did report some irregularities, but he makes it clear that he had no idea that the school would be penalized by not getting an API. Raines sees two problems with the current system.
"First of all," he says, "the state board should never have taken an off-the-shelf standardized test, because the Stanford 9 does not align well with the state standards. That's why you need multiple indicators. If you're going to give a school money for improved achievement, you better be darn sure you're seeing improved achievement and not improved test scores. Give them a writing assessment, a portfolio analysis, give them enough indicators so if that school comes out on top, you can find out why and apply its techniques."
Raines touches on another key problem with the accountability program. While the state demands that its students take a single standardized test, it gives no instruction on how schools should prepare students to take the test. In fact, it remains up to the districts to advise teachers how to properly prepare kids. The districts are also responsible for reporting any infractions to the state. San Diego has developed a reputation for policing itself more closely than other areas, which means that it may be depriving itself of more money than other cities. So the state enjoys the public's fondness for accountability, while the districts are stuck with figuring out how to administer the shortsighted program.
"We have not had any state guidelines as to what is and what is not appropriate test preparation," Raines says. "I get calls from people all the time asking about whether it's okay to use this or that, so I've become the gatekeeper for test preparation.
"Test-wiseness needs to be an integrated part of the curriculum," he adds. "It shouldn't be separate. Test preparation levels the playing field. What I mean by that is that if every youngster had access to the same preparation, if they all learned the same techniques as to how to do well on tests, and all had access to the same information, it makes the scores more valid."
The word from the California Department of Education is that if districts run decent schools and teachers act responsibly, then there shouldn't be a problem. When asked if the state could help teachers prepare their students for the Stanford 9 without violating test security, Linda Lownes, a consultant with the state Department of Education's standards and assessments division, responded, "There is a state law that prohibits preparation for this particular test." In an op-ed that ran in the Union-Tribune in July, Julian R. Betts, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, exposed the state accountability program's most egregious lapse. "The state testing program has a dark little secret," Betts explained. "Amazingly, the state has given exactly the same version of the Stanford 9 test to students in each of the last three years." How can teachers be expected not to prepare their students for the test under these circumstances?
"Professional ethics asks them not to disclose its contents," Lownes says. Bill Padia, director of the state education department's office of policy and evaluation, adds, "We have to create a culture out there where there is no tolerance for this. This is just a consequence of overly zealous teachers trying to do things and they cross the line, cross the line in a lot of ways. Districts themselves can do a lot more about informing their teachers about the rules and consequences of transgression. If they would just follow what's out there, I don't think we would have a problem."
The state is happy with a standardized test, but it won't standardize test preparation or security, which places the onus on teachers. "The state ought to have enough brains to design a test that is secure," de Beck says. "If the state wants to do this, it's a no-brainer for them to send down their own monitors. I don't care if they call the highway patrol in, for crying out loud. If they have to do the testing, and if they think that one test is that significant in the scheme of things, then they better design it more securely." The state's solution to the problem is to enforce a uniform punishment regardless of the severity of an infraction and whether or not there's definite proof that one even occurred. One San Diego City Schools official, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, "What the state people will tell you is that if they don't enforce these stringent measures, because money is involved, then there will be all sorts of incentives to cut corners, because teachers and schools get cash awards out of these programs. By having a Draconian consequence, if you will, that hopefully sobers people from cheating."
Greg Geeting, the interim executive director of the state Board of Education, claims, "I have not heard about inadvertent, accidental problems" in testing. Defending the state's one-size-fits-all punishment, Geeting says, "The stakes are high." The PSAA advisory committee, he explains, told the state board, "All the possibilities...have a downside. This solution has the fewest. It's the least objectionable."
All of this over a test that many educators believe measures very little, if anything at all.