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September 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 1

California Testing: How Principals Choose Priorities

In California, principals are feeling—and reacting to—the standards crunch. A recent survey shows what changes principals believe will help students make achievement gains.

The principal of an elementary school was waiting for the big vote. To adopt a new reform program for his school, 80 percent of the teaching staff needed to agree to the change. The principal displayed an overhead. "This is the bottom line," he said. "We spent more than $1 million in categorical funds in the past five years." He then held up another graph that showed student achievement during the same five-year period. The graph indicated that, if anything, student achievement had declined. "What we are doing is not working. Even if we don't adopt this program, we must do something."
In California, educators are pursuing school reform with a new urgency. For years, the state has published curricular frameworks for the major subject areas, but in the past three years, California has required students to take the SAT-9, a norm-referenced test designed to show the achievement level of a school's students. Students take the test in the spring; in the fall, an academic performance index lists the scores of each school for every district in the state. These scores indicate how a school's students performed on the test, how much the school improved from the previous year, and where it ranks on the dreaded comparison band. The schools that score well receive monetary incentives, community recognition, and state awards; the schools that do not score well await a less pleasant fate. Schools that score poorly face a potential loss of state funds, and districts with low-scoring schools could eventually be placed under state agency control. The public embarrassment and humiliation of not scoring well cuts deeply into the esteem of the communities.
Although school reformers have debated for years whether mandated state tests are a solution to public education woes, a new study indicates that, for good or bad, the new California state test has captured the attention of educators, who are hustling to find ways to boost achievement in their schools. The study, completed by the Central Valley Educational Research Consortium, examined 118 schools—86 elementary, 15 middle, and 17 high schools—within the 8-county area that makes up California's Central Valley (12 percent of the public schools from 47 different districts). The study looked at districts in the southern half of the valley, an area chosen for its multicultural and socioeconomic mix. The students from the 8 counties are 45 percent Hispanic, 38 percent white, 8 percent Asian, 5 percent African American, 2 percent Filipino, and 1 percent each Pacific Islander and Native American.
The study asked school principals, "What effort, if any, is your school making to improve the education of the lowest-achieving students?" The responses are illuminating.

Student-Centered Learning

  • Look at the data. Even schools that were only in the beginning stages of initiating new programs had started analyzing data to identify student needs. Schools that had gone a step farther in creating an intervention program or individualizing curriculum targeted their students primarily from test score results.In some cases, the school created an after-school program or pushed for an extended school year. The most common response, however, was that the school changed how students were taught during the school day—both by modifying the curriculum to include more individualized instruction and by creating special programs that allowed teachers to use their instructional time better.
  • Identify a reading program. Principals identified a variety of programs—often skills- or phonics-based—to help students with reading. Many principals hired reading specialists. Although we found no consensus as to which program was best, principals identified programs that taught reading in a systematic way.
  • Expand the schedule. Finally, to emphasize reading and math, schools were carving up the traditional teaching day into new configurations. Traditional pullout programs were still common, but principals were also making more radical alterations. One principal used what he called "cycling"—or looping—in which a few primary teachers kept the same students for two years. A more common approach was to designate an uninterrupted reading or math block in the morning. Some principals grouped the entire school by ability during this time. Instead of one 3rd grade teacher teaching reading to all her students, for example, students went to different teachers for their reading instruction on the basis of their test scores.The most typical program was the extended day, implemented by 61 percent of the principals. Activities included after-school tutoring, homework clubs, and remedial programs. In most cases, the school targeted students on the basis of their test scores and assigned students to different teachers or sections, depending on their identified weaknesses. In the most typical extended-day program, students worked in small groups with a teacher on either reading or math until they came up to grade level.Although extended-day programs were common, principals looked to other ways to extend the learning time for students. Some principals extended the school year, created intercession classes, and offered Saturday school. California's monetary incentives for pursuing these options helped, but beyond financial incentives, principals knew that students needed more time to master the curriculum.

Aligning the Curriculum to Standards

Many principals (42 percent) wanted to focus on curriculum articulation. They described the different levels of articulation—promoting better "horizontal" articulation at the local or district level and "vertical" articulation among various grade levels at their school. But they mainly "focused on the written, taught, and tested curriculum" and wanted to make sure that the curriculum was properly aligned. They used the words "teaching to the test" about as frequently as "teaching to the standards."
One teacher described how the school used the tests to articulate the curriculum:After looking at the test, I could see holes big enough to drive a truck through. . . . The teachers took the [student] scores and compared them against the test, question by question.What teachers found, for example, was that students were unfamiliar with nonfiction, which was commonly included on the test. The solution was to embed content-related reading selections into the curriculum.
All comments about curriculum articulation boiled down to a few common denominators. First, principals said that their schools needed to do a better job of teaching to the standards. Second, as principals reshaped and aligned the curriculum, they concluded that they needed to spend more time on reading and math to improve the low achievement levels of their students. Many schools reported that they had restructured their school day to allow their teachers to spend more time on reading and math (a 90-minute block of time daily, for example). Frequently, they adopted a reading program and pruned the curriculum. Almost uniformly, principals said that the schools could improve their test scores if they taught to the test and to standards better.

New Methodologies

Twenty-five percent of the participants commented that they were promoting some form of curriculum methodology with their staff to improve the achievement levels of their students. But comments about the methodology varied. Some offered Beginning Teacher Support Assessment training, which requires teacher training in methodology. Training in teaching literacy also was commonplace. At the elementary school level, principals did believe that the staff was teaching well, but they felt that the staff needed to use different methods in conjunction with the new programs that the schools were adopting.
For reading programs to be effective, teachers needed diagnostic skills to assess their students' reading abilities, direct-instruction techniques for phonics-based programs, and cooperative learning methods to facilitate small groups of readers—in short, they needed a complete repertoire of techniques. The new focus on individualizing instruction in reading has required new methods and skills, and many teachers have not yet been trained in using them.
Comments about curriculum methodology in high school suggest a different attitude. Principals acknowledged that high school teachers were not as proficient in student-centered methodologies as they needed to be. They suggested that high school teachers knew less than elementary teachers about teaching reading and using reading strategies with their students.
On the whole, however, the question about improving education for low-achieving students did not cause principals to lament the quality of teaching; rather, principals said that teachers needed to learn new methods and strategies to deal with the school's current focus.

Getting Parents Involved

Administrators were aware of the role that parents could play in boosting achievement. Twenty-three percent indicated that they initiated more parental involvement. Although the descriptions of the activities included the usual informational flyers, newsletters, or parent-teacher conferences, respondents also focused on developing more engaging parent outreach efforts. As one principal stated, "We realize that parents only have to do two things: convince their kids that school is important and get them to do homework." Along these lines, parent programs across the board tended to reinforce parenting skills or to educate parents about their children's curriculum so that they could help with homework.
At one elementary school, a principal helped develop an on-campus parent center, where parents or volunteers received training in both parenting skills and literacy models. In the northern part of the valley, an elementary school vice principal described the Family Project, which teaches recent immigrant parents how to improve their children's self-esteem, study skills, and ability to set goals. Other programs included a parent education conference, eight-week parent institutes, parenting classes, and an academic focus night, during which parents attended a dinner meeting focused on an educational theme. One district instituted a districtwide goal-sharing initiative that resulted in different types of school outreach efforts. At one elementary school, the principal met with the parents regularly, and the school used a "whisper" system that enabled parents to hear information in their own languages, such as Hmong or Spanish.
Several principals mentioned that their programs were in infancy stages and that getting parents to school had been a learning process. Just inviting parents to hear about a topic is less effective than providing an incentive for parents to attend, such as offering a dinner or building the meeting around a student activity. Among those who had initiated programs, many principals said that they had been successful in increasing parental involvement at their schools.

California Reforms

Administrators responded nearly unanimously that they were trying to boost student achievement. We don't know how successful their reforms will be, but administrators do have new tools with which to work. For example, they often use data, which are easier to gain access to and more varied and plentiful than ever. Data determine how to modify curriculum and help diagnose student achievement.
Contributing to reform in California is state money, which is helping fund intervention programs, planning grants for underperforming schools, extensions of the school year, and advanced placement programs. Schools are using many state grant programs as well. The new Immediate Intervention/Under-performing Schools program funds 430 schools. Another program gives additional financial aid to troubled schools that agree to follow a prescribed reform plan.
Recent studies contend that successful school reform requires a sustained, coherent improvement strategy (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). And schools that make a coordinated effort toward reform while focusing on improving specific student skills are likely to raise student scores (Lake, Hill, O'Toole, & Celio, 1999). Both reforms are happening in California's Central Valley. Schools that showed marked achievement growth on last year's exam all described systematic efforts to raise student scores while targeting reading, writing, and math.
Articulation issues, curriculum methodology, reading strategies, and pullout programs—the bread and butter of an experienced administrator—have been around for years. What is exciting today is that administrators are using these methods in concert to create a more comprehensive student-centered educational system that produces higher student achievement. Although schools are at different stages in the process, change is in the air for all schools in California.

Lake, R. J., Hill, P. T., O'Toole, L., & Celio, M. B. (1999). Making standards work: Active voices, focused learning. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education.

U.S. Department of Education. (1998, May). Turning around low-performing schools: A guide for state and local leaders. Washington, DC: Author. Available: www.ed.gov/pubs/turning/index.html

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