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Help Win Education's STAR Wars

Like the Death Star and Empire, state's testing program deserves opposition and defeat

Forcing Carl to focus through a week of STAR testing was harder than beating Darth Vader in a light saber duel.

“Do I have to take the test?” Carl moaned.

“Yes,” I told him.

“Can I just make up answers?” he whined.

“No!” I exclaimed.

“But nothing will happen if I do, right?”

“I’ve got a real bad feeling about this,” I said to myself.

Welcome to the STAR Wars of California public education. I enjoyed the adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie but never yearned for Jedi powers until I had to proctor the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams as a high school teacher.

California requires students in grades two through 11 to take the test each spring. The goal to measure schools’ effectiveness is reasonable, but the massive effort has a fatal flaw, like the exhaust port which the Rebellion used to blow up the Death Star.

While the state uses the test scores to assess schools, schools may not use them to assess students. Kids’ scores do not affect their grades, grade promotion or college admissions. This “Phantom Menace” escaped notice when the program began in 1997.

With nothing to gain or lose, students can simply space out, filling random bubbles on their answer sheets without even reading the questions. In an “Attack of the Clones,” many do just that.

This problem only worsened when scholarship money once attached to STAR disappeared. Then even the high-achieving kids lost their only incentive. To teachers already struggling to motivate their students, this calamity struck like the massacre of Jedi in “Revenge of the Sith.”

I can think of no other field that attaches so much importance and at least $50 million of taxpayers’ money a year to such an obviously flawed assessment, but let me suggest “A New Hope.” We can vastly improve the program’s validity by rewarding high-scoring students in grades nine and above with credits towards admission at public universities. This simple change would invigorate the program with more enthusiasm than a forest full of Ewoks without costing a dime.

Unfortunately, we may be headed in the opposite direction. Without addressing the student accountability issue, lawmakers want to connect test scores to teacher evaluations, like Princess Leia chained to the grotesque Jabba the Hut. This idea makes less sense than using Luke Skywalker’s prowess at repairing his uncle’s farm equipment to judge Yoda’s ability to teach him The Force.

And what about students who dislike their teachers? Many kids would use the test to attack them out of spite. This sinister scenario would hit like the evil Emperor’s assault on the rebels in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Teachers yearn for a “Return of the Jedi” to end this dysfunction and injustice, but it will take many heroes to win the STAR Wars. Educators, parents, current and former students, concerned citizens and voters, together must speak loudly until lawmakers and bureaucrats understand and act on this issue.

No one benefits when teachers are forced to beg their students to cooperate like Leia pleaded to Obi Wan Kenobi, “Help me. You’re my only hope.”

Instead, let’s work together against the Death STAR, like the rebels who destroyed the Empire’s evil space station. “Yahoooo!” Han shouted. “Let’s blow this thing and go home.”

Matt Johanson teaches at Castro Valley High School.

Carey Sanchez Para April 04, 2012 at 01:36 PM
I wish I could say that the Force was with you on this one. However, I don't see this happening any time soon. Too many students are pressured to perform starting in 2nd grade by unsuspecting parents and stressed out teachers. Title I schools have even higher stakes in this testing game because their federal funding is at risk if they become a Program Improvement school and remain so based on test results. I'm all for achievement, but this is a farce the way it's being done under No Child Left Behind. We can and must do better by our kids!
Cindy Barclay April 04, 2012 at 04:48 PM
This farce has been going on for too long. I would remind parents that they have the right to choose not to have their student tested. I kept my now Freshmen from taking the test in 2nd grade because it would have been too overwhelming for her. Statistics show that the higher economic demographic areas have the highest percentage of parents refusing to have their students tested. You will get A LOT of protest from the school district if you refuse to test your student because they need a high percentage of participation. However, we are the advocates for our children and must do what is right by them not the district. Congress must rethink the No Child Left Behind legislation. It does not accomplish what it was intended to accomplish (primarily because of lack of funding!).
Thomas Clarke April 04, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Hang on a second here. Let me get this straight. The student does not get a reward for performing well? The teacher cannot seem to induce the students to perform their academic tricks on demand? Students are not true to their school and constantly in a warm embrace of kumbayah? Students actually rebell against the mindless monotony of irrelevant teachers and parents? Parents shield their kids from the stress of testing? It is wise of the state to judge our schools on the Star Tests. If these things are happening, it is clear that the school is failing. The parents are clueless, the teachers are ineffective, the process itself is irrelevant and the students are angry. We do not like the results that tell us the schools are failing or have failed. Folks it is time to hold the districts, parents, staff, teachers, union leadership, administrative leaders and the trustees accountable for their collective failure. The time is now to insist on absolute accountability. Terminate the failures. Replace them with new blood that is committed to success.
Rob Phillips April 13, 2012 at 11:51 PM
Somebody who knows Thomas Clark personally needs to shake him awake and remind him that this is the 21st century, not the 19th. And to kindly ask him to stop wasting our time by offering 19th century solutions to 21st century problems that he is clueless about. It's clear he is sincere and is trying to help but, puuuleeez!
Thomas Clarke April 14, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Robert, thanks so much for your suggestions about what I should think. Just keep right on doing what you are doing. You will continue to reap the bounty of your twenty first century agronomy. Of course nothing will have changed and you will continue to keep the same problems. You can be sure that district, parents, staff, teachers, union leadership, administrative leaders and the trustees will talk and emasculate what real solutions may be there so as not to irritate anyone. Except that you will end up with pablum, guaranteed to be palatable to all but not really much in the way of eating. Your twenty first century solution is to distribute immunity instead of accountability, incent the failure and to increase political correctness to the point of inanity. Remember that your appeal to censorship is the same as that of all totalitarian regimes and their eunuchs. Good job there Robert. Do not address the solutions but do be critical of those who speak up. You will go far not really standing up.

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