Teacher, test thyself

Debra J. Saunders

8/3/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
There's one thing you know that California teachers are great at: complaining. Give them a bonus, and they call it a "bribe." This year, California is giving teachers at more than 4,800 schools bonuses for improving scores in the nationally normed basic skills Stanford 9 test. After all their complaints about being underpaid, you'd think teachers would welcome checks of $591. No doubt most teachers are keeping their bonuses -- as they should. They earned them. The California Teachers Association, however, opposes the bonuses. Some teachers at Piedmont's Wildwood Elementary say they'll pass their bonuses to educational charities because the checks are "bribe money." As The San Francisco Chronicle reported Monday, an El Dorado County teacher calls the bonuses "blood money." Such indignation might make you think the state was asking teachers to do something bad -- like not teach kids. In fact, the bonuses are rewards for teaching students. The test, while imperfect, helps students by testing, for example, whether a third-grader can read proficiently. The bonus-bypassers say they object to having to spend weeks drilling students as preparation for the test and days giving the test. (While the test is given over a period of days, test time totals 400 minutes for third-graders, 580 minutes for 11th-graders.) First, when "teaching to the test" means teaching, it's good. While critics deride "drill and kill," Bill Evers, an unpaid adviser to the state testing system, noted, "Drill and varied practice is an excellent method of learning material taught in school." Second, to the extent that "teaching to the test" means pumping kids with answers, it is bad. Teachers are supposed to teach specific curricula and certain skills. If they coach students without teaching them a subject or skill, teachers should forgo their bonuses because they've shortchanged children. Third, until teachers stop showing movies for entertainment in lieu of a lesson, they have no business crying about the time they spend on a test. Readers should be aware that the bonuses do not go to schools with the highest scores, but to schools that improve. Poor schools aren't locked in an unwinnable competition with middle-class schools. Explained Doug Stone of the state Department of Education, "You are competing against yourself at your own school." Of course, the Stanford 9 test is far from perfect, but the state had to start somewhere. Next year, the Academic Performance Index will be based on Stanford 9 scores and an adjunct test based on state standards. Besides, as Ann Bancroft, spokes woman for Gov. Gray Davis' education secretary Kerry Mazzoni, asked, "If a teacher doesn't believe the test is valuable and would return the award money attached to it, why would that same teacher spend time on numbing drill?" Good question. Another good question: "Is "drill and kill' worse than ignorance?" Critics forget the cruel statistics that begat state adoption of Stanford 9. In 1995, California learned that it had tied with Louisiana in last place out of 39 states in a nationally normed fourth-grade reading test; a mere 18 percent of students were judged "proficient" readers. The funny thing about the CTA opposing bonuses that reward rising test scores: The CTA never urged teachers not to cash their paychecks when kids couldn't read.