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Students' Scores On State Tests Up in California

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Sacramento--California's high-school seniors improved their scores this year in all areas of the state's basic-skills test, owing in large part, state and local testing officials say, to the availability of $14.4 million in incentive bonuses for schools.

Students' average scores this year rose in reading, written expression, spelling, and mathematics, according to state officials. While the scores are still below national norms, they represent the highest level reached in 10 years for all categories but reading.

California was one of the first two states to adopt, as part of its school-reform program, a financial-incentive strategy to reward schools for improvements in the academic performance of their students. Florida's "merit-schools program," which has run into opposition from teachers, will reward schools for both improvement and high performance relative to that of other schools.

Under California's Education Improvement Incentive Program, which was approved as part of the 1983 omnibus school-reform law, high schools can earn bonuses of up to $400 per student if at least 93 percent of a school's seniors take the California Assessment Program (cap) test and if average scores are better than those attained by seniors at the school the previous year.

Further, 91 percent of the state's seniors took the cap test this school year--up from the 79 percent who had participated during the previous three years.

"Over the years, we have seen the least improvement, if any at all, at the 12th-grade level," said State Senator Leroy F. Greene, who proposed the incentive program. "This is the first time in a long time that there has been a substantial improvement."

Schools To Share Award

On the basis of this year's test scores, 548 of California's 1,213 high schools and continuation schools that met the standards of the incentive program will share the award money, according to Senator Greene. In contrast, last year, when no bonuses were offered, only 60 schools with a student-participation rate of 93 percent or better showed test improvement.

Schools that participated in the incentive program are permitted to spend the money they receive as they choose, according to state officials, except that they cannot use it as the basis for signing a long-term contract.

Extraordinary efforts were made by schools throughout the state to qualify for the so-called "Cash for cap" program.

Seniors at a Sacramento high school got a voucher for a free hamburger if they showed up to take the test. The school also held a pep rally, with alumni and local disk jockeys present to urge the 12th graders to do their best.

At other high schools, counselors made telephone calls to parents of students who had missed the exam on its first administration, urging them to see that their children took the second test. And seniors on one campus sported lapel buttons that read "Zap the cap."

There was one notable exception to the first-year success of the pro-gram. Four seniors at a high school in Chico persuaded their fellow 12th graders to flunk the test intentionally after the school's principal rejected their demand that 80 percent of any funds received under the incentive program pay for a class trip to the beach resort of Santa Cruz.

Paying Students Questioned

Despite the program's general popularity, however, some educators remain unconvinced of its merit.

Phillip Oakes, director of research and evaluation in the San Juan Unified School District in suburban Sacramento, expressed some misgivings about money incentives for test scores. "It could lead to students' saying, 'If you want me to improve, you've got to pay me for it,"' he said.

"I think incentives ought to be based on more than just test scores. Maybe we ought to have incentives to reduce the number of dropouts."

But proponents of the program, including Senator Greene, counter such arguments by pointing to the results. "The ends justify the means," said the Senator.

William Burson, an evaluation consultant for the California State Department of Education, agreed, adding that the "testing situation" itself has improved, with schools paying closer attention to the 12th-grade test.

"The testing had been around for a long time," Mr. Burson said. "There was an attitude that we don't have to break our necks to round up the kids, it doesn't affect their future, it's something the state requires."

But this year, there was a "positive attitude and good spirit," he said.

Senator Greene, in proposing the incentive program, agreed to terminate it in three years if seniors failed to show at least a 3-percent improvement in test scores. This year alone, he said, the improvement was just under 2 percent.

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