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Front St.Clovis Schools Section - Clovis Free PressBack St.
Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press

February 19, 2001
"Higher Score Guaranteed or your money back."
By Howard Hobbs, Ph.D. Valley Press Media Network

     CLOVIS -- In Clovis, California you can't get a 4th Grade promotion these days without demonstrating mastery of the standardized test skill.  Even in President Bush's first week in office he said he wanted standardized "...testing of every child, every year."
    The implications of the president's education initiative is a multibillion-dollar green-light for test-preparation firms that provide materials and services to schools. California is now trying to keep pace with the tremendous growth in tests given to elementary and secondary school students, and with the techniques made possible through technological advances.
     Last Spring, state lawmakers approved roughly $914 million worth of rewards and other funding tied to test results, including measures Gov. Gray Davis characterized as "...the largest and most aggressive package of teacher incentives ever offered by any state in America."
     All employees in schools that improved their test scores enough to meet their 5 percent "growth targets," as defined by the 1999 law that set up the state's accountability system, qualified to receive bonuses of roughly $800 early this year.
     The schools themselves are also receiving rewards of roughly $70 per student that they can spend however they see fit, on training, instructional materials, or additional staff bonuses.
     California school officials were so persuaded of their merit, rewards were initially announced as twice those amounts, but the individual bonuses had to be scaled back because more schools than expected made significant gains on state tests. In fact, more than two-thirds of schools eventually qualified for cash awards.
     The state education department had previously predicted that 60 percent of schools would meet their growth targets. To top off those incentives, the state is offering an even bigger carrot to teachers at schools coming up with extra ordinary testing gains.
     The legislature budgeted $100 million to provide $25,000 bonuses to 1,000 teachers in schools that log the largest improvements in test scores, while another 11,000 teachers are getting bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $10,000. It is not surprising that a great deal of uncertainty has surface among educators about teaching the test.
     Since the early exuberance, however, new test content is setting off alarms with school administrators. The ethics of teaching children to improve their test performance in nothing new. For generations, children have been encouraged to improve curriculum test performance. But what teachers, administrators and parents don't buy is the new pressure to teach test-preparation as a separate course of study in an already overburdened school day.
    Test publishers told the Clovis Free Press News this week that they "...provide a needed service to help students learn more, teach them to do their best and help families and educators cope with mounting fear and pressure."
     Critics say such materials prey on parents' and educators' anxieties and do not improve education. California provides one of the most vivid examples of the test-preparation debate.
     The workbook to prepare California 3rd Grade pupils for the state's standardized test is among the most detailed of a new genre of guides for elementary students, sold by Kaplan Publishing, a leader in the test prep industry. It is so detailed that it likely exceeds what the state allows in its classrooms.
    In the coming Spring test extravaganza, California will likely distribute $700 million to schools, based exclusively on the results of one standardized test. Ironically, the state's policy bars educators from using "...any test-preparation materials or strategies developed for a specific test."
     The California ban on use of commercial test-preparation may have a dulling effect on future test performance. But, commercial workbooks are likely part of the expansion of the $100,000,000,000 for-profit education business. Most of the growth has been in online workbooks tutoring aimed at schools and families.
     For instance, Advantage Learning Co. provides computer software and training services designed to improve academic performance of students at the K-12 level. It encourages students to practice taking tests in reading, math and writing and gives students immediate feedback on performance. By the end of 1999, Advantage Learning Co. racked up the sale of its test prep program to 40 percent of the nation's public schools.
     Advantage's says it's sales angle is, "...to generate dozens of tailored, paper practice tests just like the actual standardized tests! Score student practice tests in seconds and get immediate results! Predict student performance and identify potential problems-months in advance! Automatically receive progress reports on all students, without additional paperwork! Easily develop effective intervention strategies to boost test scores! Build student self-confidence and minimize testing anxiety!"
     In addition to computer software, Advantage Learning also provides professional development training for teachers. In 1999, the company generated more than 85 percent of its revenues from the sale of software products and related support services; the balance of revenues was derived from the company's professional development training programs.
   By last June, Business Week Magazine ranked Advantage Learning ion the Top 20 businesses in its annual list of "100 Hot Growth Companies" based on its school sales which were $492,000,000 by June 1, 2000.
    President Bush's proposal for yearly tests, if adopted, means most states will expand testing to a new federal curriculum.
    Even without a federal testing mandate, about half of the states are already pushing students to pass a comprehensive test to get a high school diploma, and some states, including California, are looking into requiring children to pass standardized tests for promotion to certain grades, the Clovis Free Press News has found.
    The increased reliance on high-stakes testing may be pressuring teachers to tests excessively, drill and practice for the mixed purpose of boosting class and school test scores and the teacher's share of Gov. Davis' $914 million teacher rewards .

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