How the Stanford 9 Test Institutionalizes Unequal Education

By ALEX CAPUTO-PEARL

I teach at one of the "100 worst" schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Superintendent Ruben Zacarias placed my school, John Muir Middle School, on probation last September primarily because its students scored low on the Stanford 9 test, along with not meeting other "key indicators" such as attendance and parent participation. The school's average scores are significantly below the 25th percentile. If student scores on this test do not improve by one to two percentile points, the district may take over John Muir. Eventually, the state could forcefully remove all staff.

Standardized tests like the Stanford 9 do not measure critical thinking, contain many cultural biases and are given in English. Because more than half of Muir's pupils are immigrants learning English, their low scores are not difficult to fathom. Furthermore, the Stanford 9 is a norm-referenced test. It is designed to produce results that form bell-shaped curves ranking a student's scores against others. Historically, such tests have not served as learning tools. Rather, they have been used to unfairly sort students onto either high- or low-academic tracks based on their test ranking, resulting in unequal access to education.

Muir is typical of the 100 "worst" schools. It's located in a low-income, mostly African American and Latino community hurt by a lack of businesses and job opportunities and devastated by government cutbacks in social spending. My classroom's ceiling has a hole, its chalkboard is cracked and its floors warped. I often have 35 students in my classes. Unfortunately, in threatening schools like Muir with probation or a takeover, Zacarias fosters no discussion about the detrimental effects of poverty, racial segregation and lack of resources on students' test scores.

Fundamentally, our school community is the product of an economy that perpetuates poverty in communities of color and a political system that scapegoats the victims. Over the last two decades, 280,000 unionized manufacturing jobs disappeared in Los Angeles, many of them in the vicinity of Muir's South-Central campus. They have been replaced by low-paying light-manufacturing employment and mostly part-time service jobs. At the same time, county, state and federal governments cut social spending. More recently, Californians voted to ban affirmative action and bilingual education. Yet, low-income people of color are routinely blamed for being unemployed, underemployed or demoralized.

Use of standardized tests to stigmatize LAUSD's worst-performing schools is the education version of this scapegoating. The district does not provide these schools with the resources they need to help their students learn-and then blames them for poor test results. Politicians who shy away from real education and economic reform use the tests as a smoke screen, claiming that raising scores will attack poverty. But as long as we live in a society of racial segregation and uneven economic development, slightly higher scores on standardized tests are not going to make a major difference in the lives of poor students. Students scoring at the 25th percentile will be in the same boat as those below the 10th percentile as long as they face the same lack of opportunity in their communities.

Rather than deal with these problems, the district has further entrenched test-based discrimination along race and class lines. First, in response to pressures to raise their test scores, schools in poorer areas emphasize narrow test-taking drills at the expense of course content. In contrast, schools in wealthier areas and with higher scores more often do project-based learning, which explores content on multiple levels. The result is separate and unequal schooling.

Second, top district officials have directed Muir teachers to focus their efforts on that small minority of students who score above the 4Oth percentile. These students, the district contends, have proved they can take tests well. If they receive more attention, so the argument goes, their test-taking abilities are bound to improve. Their resulting higher individual scores can pull up the entire school's average: Muir would be saved from a potential takeover. Thus is created the illusion of school reform. By using such tactics, the district is choosing to fend off its critics by touting trick scores on a flawed test instead of advocating real school reform that would demand dramatically increased funding and expanded programs to benefit all students.

Teachers, students and parents can initiate real school reform by organizing a boycott of Stanford 9 testing next spring, especially at the 100 "worst" schools but supported by all who recognize the inequities perpetuated by these tests. Alongside the boycott, they should demand an alternative assessment of students based on portfolios.

Under portfolio assessment, teachers and students compile a variety of work throughout the school year. Among the elements are writing samples, tapes of dramatic performances, skill-achievement sheets and projects. The resulting individual student portfolios are evaluated by teachers and parents according to a scoring guide. Vermont currently has a promising portfolio-assessment system in place. The chief benefit of portfolio-based evaluation is that it shows a student's progress over time rather than as a snapshot drawn from a high-stakes exam taken in a few hours.

Such alternative approaches to student assessment cannot occur in a reform vacuum. They must be linked to smaller class sizes, better campus facilities and programs like bilingual education. These reforms would ensure that the alternative assessments are fair, honest and rigorous. This approach would be truly effective if the city and state linked it with enhanced economic opportunities in low-income communities through the creation of good-paying jobs. Our students deserve nothing less than a comprehensive approach to education reform.

 

Alex Caputo-Pearl, Who Teaches 6th Grade, Is a Member of the Labor/Community Strategy Center; a Nonprofit Organization Involved in Community Organizing.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, May 2, 1999.