What You Need to Know About California's High Stakes Tests

What are 'high stakes' tests?

These are tests mandated by law whose scores are
used as the basis for distributing rewards and punish-ments to students, teachers, schools, and school administrators.

What happens to students who fail tests?

Students cannot be legally denied promotion based
solely on STAR/ SAT9 (or its replacement). Standardized test scores, however, are routinely used to place students in remedial tracks, to admit students to special programs, academic tracks and 'magnet' high schools. Beginning in 2004, students who do not pass the exit exam (HSEE) can be denied a high school diploma.

What happens to schools that do not meet test score targets?

Schools and teachers are ineligible for financial rewards. If schools do not improve over time, they could lose eligibility for state and/or federal funding, could be disbanded or 'reconstituted' and principals, teachers,
and school staff reassigned, demoted or possibly fired.

How are schools and teachers rewarded?

Schools meeting and exceeding target scores receive additional per pupil funding. Amounts vary depending
on annual educational appropriations. In 2001 teachers
in eligible schools received bonuses of five to twenty-five thousand dollars; schools about sixty dollars per student.

What is the difference between a normed test and a criterion-referenced test?

In a normed test 50% score above, and 50% below the average score, since scores are based on a 'normal' or 'bell' curve. A student's score on a normed reading test, for example, tells us only how his or her score compares to the scores of others taking the same (or equivalent) reading test. There is no relationship between a reading test score and a person's actual reading performance. In a 'criterion-referenced' test, failure is determined by a cut score set by an appointed government panel. As with a normed test, there is no connection between test scores and actual academic performance.

What are the high stakes tests now used in California?

California's system of statewide assessment is called 'Standardized Testing And Reporting' or STAR. In 1998 the STAR program authorized the use of a version of the Stanford Achievement Test 9th edition (SAT9)
a commercially available normed test published and serviced by Harcourt Measurement, a division of Reed-Elsevier one of the world's largest publishers.

SAT 9: Stanford Achievement Test
A normed test given each spring to almost all students from grades 2 through 11. It is offered in English only and tests reading, writing and mathematics for all grades, spelling through grade 8, and science and social science/history from grades 9 to 11. In 2003, the SAT9 is to be replaced with the California Standards Test or CST, a 'criterion-referenced' test that the State says is to be aligned to the curriculum standards. A shorter normed test essentially similar to the SAT9 will continue to be administered.

HSEE: High School Exit Examination
A 'criterion-referenced' language comprehension and math test given only in English. Test items are aligned to the State's language and math standards. Beginning in 2004, all students must pass HSEE to receive a high school diploma. They have eight chances to pass. The State is required to make accommodations for learning and physically disabled.

API : Academic Performance Index
A numerical index that ranks all public schools in California. According to the State, the API is a "measure of the academic performance and growth of schools." API ranks are currently assigned solely on SAT9 scores. An API of 800 (on a scale of 200-1000) was set by the State Board of Education as the minimum standard. Note that the 800 API score is not based on observation of schools or on an assessment of students' or teachers actual performance.

Do high stakes tests raise academic standards and increase educational opportunity?

  • Studies on the effects of high stakes tests show that rather than erasing educational inequalities and raising levels of academic achievement, high stakes tests increased the race and class achievement gap with English language learners especially at risk. Studies of the Texas, Massachusetts, and New York State exit exams revealed a sharp rise in drop out rates particularly in schools that primarily serve Latino and African Americans. It is estimated that over 70% of students in some of the poorer California districts will not pass HSEE.
  • High stakes testing degrades the curriculum and restricts learning opportunities for many students, particularly in schools that serve the children of the poor and of color. Schools focus energy and resources on test preparedness. Whatever does not contribute directly to short-term gains in test scores is disrupted, curtailed or abandoned ┬żbilingual education, critical thinking, reading for meaning, interdisciplinary studies, the arts, music, citizenship and community service programs, physical and health education, and multicultural curriculum.
  • Many teachers, counselors, and administrators oppose making final and irrevocable life decisions based solely on standardized test scores. They object to the preoccupation with test results which inevitably leads to a standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum.
  • As mandates for high stakes tests increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit and retain experienced and talented teachers and administrators particularly in schools located at the low end of rankings -the schools that serve children of the poor, limited English immigrants, persons of color, a majority of whom live in California's most needy and financially stressed urban districts.

What we are for:

We favor immediate repeal of high stakes testing in California.
We must cut the link between HSEE and API rankings and a State imposed system of rewards and sanctions. No single test score or set of scores should be used for making final and fateful decisions about students, schools, and school staff.

We favor alternatives to high-stakes tests. Numerous alternative forms of assessment exist and are being used across the country.

We favor forms of assessment that:

  • Combat racism and enhance educational opportunities for all children; that narrow the race and social class gap and the wide disparities in resources between rich and poor schools.
  • Help to achieve and maintain educational standards, but not permit state and federal governments or local school boards to impose a singular or particular view of teaching, knowledge, language, and culture.
  • Support improved learning. Assessments must provide information to students that helps them improve their own learning and make informed decisions.
  • Help teachers teach better. Assessments must provide a wide array of information to teachers to help them improve their teaching practices and students' achievement.
  • Are developed collaboratively by teachers in close consultation with parents, community, and experts in all areas of curriculum and learning.
  • Encourage and reward initiatives taken at local district and school levels by teachers, parents, and communities to develop locally appropriate context-sensitive forms of assessment.


Coalition for Fair and Authentic Assessment

We are a newly formed independent group of teachers, parents, and members of this community. Our mission is to inform; encourage the open exchange of information on testing and assessment in California; and work for reforms that promote educational excellence and social justice.

What can we do?
A first step is to get involved in the growing movement to restore sanity to the assessment process.

Dear Principal,
I do not want my child _________________________________
to take the STAR test this spring.

Signature ________________Date _____

You may copy, sign, and give waiver request to your child's principal

For an e-copy mail to: hberlak@infinex.com