By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
English Department Chair Heather Golden-Young says it wasn't an easy decision for teachers to allow standardized test scores to boost grades.
As teachers are getting ready to have students pull out No. 2 pencils for standardized tests, Del Norte High School in Crescent City has figured out a controversial way to make the tests relevant to students — link them to grades.
If students score “proficient” or “advanced” on the California Standards Test (CST), they can raise their semester grade by one level. Students can go from an F to a D, for example, which can mean the difference between failing a class and passing. It’s a radical departure from other schools, where students who perform well on standardized tests do not receive any direct benefit and teachers become frustrated by students filling in the bubbles at random.
Del Norte Teachers Association members decided it was time to make students accountable for their test scores, and figured the best way to do it would be to offer them an incentive. Grades cannot be bumped up more than one level, and departments vary on the practice; in science, grades can only be bumped up as high as a B, while in English and math, grades can be bumped from a B to an A. As an incentive to students with A’s, some math teachers give bonus points on tests that will be taken the following year for students that score well. Grades are bumped up retroactively, since the test results are not released from the state until after grades are submitted. Still, there is no negative impact on grades if students do poorly on the state test.
The school’s principal, Coleen Parker, has no objection to the policy if teachers choose to adopt it. “We’ve got to come up with some way to motivate students,” says Parker. “They need to see that this test matters. It matters to us because our school is being judged on the test. For that reason, it needs to matter to students.”
Math teacher Dave Bokor came up with the idea because his students were always asking why they should do certain things. It dawned on him that his students put forth more effort when he explained the value of learning certain concepts or completing assignments.
“It would be nice if they performed well on the tests for intrinsic reasons, but that doesn’t always happen,” says Bokor.
It’s too soon to see if the policy has had an impact on overall school achievement; the policy was announced to students in spring of 2008, shortly before they took the test. But Bokor has noticed that his students are trying harder.
“I believe it’s working,” says Bokor. “Students are interested in knowing how they did on the test and whether it will have an impact on their grade.”
Some students agree.
Classmate Jacob Hodge says, “I think it’s amazing. I was sick a lot last year with bronchitis, and this helped me bring my grade up.”
Both students say they have heard of students slacking off in homework assignments — in hopes of compensating with high test scores. But they believe those willing to take such a gamble are in the minority, and that if it does work for students, there’s no harm done.
“Homework is a learning aid,” says Napier. “This system rewards students based on their knowledge, and not on whether they complete meaningless busywork. If you understand the material and do well on your CSTs, what is the point of homework?”
Heather Golden-Young, chair of the English department, says staff wrestled with the policy. “But we came to the conclusion that having this policy is no different than college; students can ‘test out’ of certain subjects if they know the materials. And isn’t having students know the material really the goal?”
Her students, she adds, are taking longer to complete their STAR tests. “They were really reading the questions,” she says. “We saw an increase in effort. And now we are going to have to go back and make some grade changes.”
Social studies teachers decided to opt out of the grading experiment, says department chair Tim Guzik, who fears that the policy could be unfair to students who are unable to raise their grades.
Social studies teachers are not the only ones with concerns. A parent who teaches at a nearby charter school has complained to the school board and the California Department of Education. The school also received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union objecting to the practice.
“For some folks, this raises the flag,” says Randy Fugate, chair of the science department, which uses the incentive system. “But flag-raising is OK, because it causes us to be more refined and consistent in our approach. And that’s always good.”
“My staff is taking a closer look at grading practices within departments to make sure that subjects are being graded consistently,” says Parker, the principal. “Because the state of California, our legislators and the governor are holding schools accountable with the use of this exam and it has no bearing on a student’s grade, I applaud my teachers for coming up with a way to utilize the scores to bring value of this test to students.”