Calif. Test-Based Bonus Plan Gets Off to Rocky Start

By Jessica L. Sandham — January 24, 2001 8 min read
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Halfway through the school year, money from California’s new $667 million test-based awards program hasn’t yet made it into either school budgets or educators’ bank accounts.

The effort to implement the high-profile rewards program—believed to be the largest of its kind in the country and a central part of Gov. Gray Davis’ plan for improving the state’s schools—has hit a series of snags. Delays have arisen as the state’s initial assumptions about student gains proved off base, and state officials realized they would have to revisit the way they gauge progress in schools where large numbers of students sat out state tests.

At stake is not only money to boost schools’ bottom lines, but also annual salary bonuses of as much as $25,000 apiece for thousands of teachers. Recent adjustments to the accountability program’s ground rules have left some educators who thought they were in line for such a windfall feeling keenly disappointed.

Some education experts see the implementation headaches as a reflection of deeper cracks in the foundation of the state’s accountability system, which currently revolves solely around students’ progress on standardized tests. In response to those and other complaints, state legislators have scheduled a hearing next week to revisit the testing program on which the rewards system is based.

“The whole rewards program is really beset with problems,” said Wayne Johnson, the president of the California Teachers Association.

Yet other school officials view the problems as a natural part of working out the kinks in a nascent effort, during what is otherwise shaping up to be a largely positive first year for the program.

“Anytime you introduce something new or innovative, there are challenges to be met,” said General F. Davie Jr., the superintendent of the 50,000-student San Juan Unified School District. “But I believe the work of staff at school sites is reflected in how students do on the [state’s accountability index], and they deserve to be rewarded.”

Exemptions a Problem

Teachers and staff members at Saul Martinez Elementary School in Mecca, a town near Palm Springs, might beg to differ.

The school was hit with embarrassing publicity a year ago after receiving the lowest score in the state on California’s academic performance index, a rating based on students’ state test scores. Since then, administrators in the 800-student school that predominantly serves Spanish-speaking children of migrant workers say hard work and an outpouring of local support have translated into greater student learning.

When the latest batch of test results came out last fall, the school’s API score had risen from 302 to 490, a breathtaking increase that school administrators initially believed would qualify their teachers for bonuses as high as $25,000 each.

But a Jan. 11 vote by the state board of education appears to have dashed the school’s hopes for big bonus checks.

Board members unanimously decided to invalidate the test scores of schools where at least 15 percent of students were exempted from taking the test because of parental waivers—a decision that eliminates the possibility of bonuses for 75 schools statewide.

At Saul Martinez, a whopping 47 percent of the students were exempted by such waivers.

At the time the tests were administered last spring, California schools were told that parents could legally choose to exempt their children from taking state tests, and that such waivers would not count against the schools.

But faced with the prospect that some schools’ waiver rates were high enough to call into question the accuracy of their data, the state board has now decided otherwise.

State officials are simply working to ensure that “we’re giving rewards to schools that played by the rules,” said Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction. “If you have a very high number of opt-outs, we can’t be sure that everybody played by the rules ... and that they didn’t leave out a large number of low-performing students.”

But Colleen K. Gaynes, the superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes Saul Martinez Elementary, said that the recent decision means that the state “has changed the rules in the middle of the game.”

“Of course they’re disappointed,” Ms. Gaynes of staff members at the school. “The teachers and principals at this school worked very hard and should be recognized for that.”

State education officials are working to sort through such challenges and others, even as they move closer to writing checks to schools qualified to receive money through three different reward programs.

Bonus Amount Cut

Bonuses granted through the $227 million Governor’s Performance Award program, designed to reward schools where test scores rose enough to meet state growth targets, will be sent to schools as early as the first week of February, according to the education department.

As approved by the legislature last spring, the program was intended to grant eligible schools roughly $150 per student. But as it turned out, many more schools than expected qualified for the bonuses. So rather than pour more money into the reward pot, state officials have instead cut the bonus amount by more than half to approximately $63 per student.

“This happened because schools performed on this test much better than the experts estimated,” said Gerald C. Hayward, the Sacramento-based director of Policy Analysis for California Education, who served on an advisory committee that helped determine an initial estimate. “There will be data problems in the first year.”

While the performance awards will be lower than anticipated this year, Gov. Davis, a Democrat, has offered a remedy for the shortfall in his proposed budget for 2001-02. That budget includes $350 million for base annual funding of the performance awards, along with a $123 million increase designed to allow the bonuses to be fully funded at $150 per student.

This year, the same schools that qualify for the performance awards are also eligible for a program that awards bonuses of roughly $500 to all employees—from janitors to principals—at schools meeting their growth targets. State officials say those bonuses will likely be sent to schools in early April. Because it was designed to be a one-time bonus program, the governor did not propose continued funding for it.

Mr. Davis’ budget proposal does include continued funding for what is perhaps the most controversial of the three bonus programs: the $100 million Certificated Staff Performance Incentives awards.

As lawmakers take up that request, implementation delays have meant that the first round of those bonuses have yet to show up in educators’ pay envelopes.

Contrary to earlier predictions that the bonuses would likely go out sometime this winter, qualifying staff members now do not stand to receive them until the tail end of the school year.

Making the Cut

Under the bonus program, which is open only to low-performing schools, schools must show exceptional improvement on state tests. Early next month, the education department expects to release a list of roughly 1,200 schools that are eligible; the bonuses, though, will then likely be awarded to educators at only to a portion of those schools.

Roughly 1,000 certified staff members at the schools with the most improvement stand to receive bonuses of $25,000 each, while 3,750 more are slated to get $10,000 each, and an additional 7,500 are to receive $5,000 each.

“Schools have to apply, and then it will literally be a top-to-bottom process to determine which schools will be eligible to get those awards,” said Doug Stone, a spokesman for the education department.

Mr. Johnson of the teachers’ union said teachers throughout the state have expressed concern that, under the program, “being in the right place at the right time is far more important than how good you are, or how hard you work.”

“It’s a situation where you make a few people happy, and a lot of people unhappy,” Mr. Johnson said. “And I don’t think I like a program like that.”

Focus on Tests Questioned

Part of the concern over all the bonus programs’ fairness is that the awards hinge solely on the results of one standardized test, which is not yet fully aligned with the state’s academic standards, said Assembly woman Virginia Strom-Martin, a Democrat who chairs the education committee in the lower house of the legislature. California uses a version of the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, which has been modified in some areas to reflect state standards.

Ms. Strom-Martin and Sen. John Vasconcellos, a fellow Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, have called a joint hearing for next week to review the state testing program.

“If we were in fact using a test that tested the standards, then we could say it’s a fair accountability system,” Ms. Strom-Martin said. “But we’re not there yet. I’m not prepared to take away the monetary rewards at this point, but certainly let’s examine it, and examine the effects of it.”

State officials say they are aware of the limitations of an accountability system based on only one measure. They say they are working to build a statewide data-collection system that would enable them to incorporate such factors as dropout and attendance rates.

Mr. Hayward of PACE added that after the system’s first year of implementation, the state will be able to better examine whether it makes sense to maintain large monetary awards for a limited number of educators, or spread the money out among more people.

“There are going to be inequities,” Mr. Hayward said. “But the system will keep getting better as we improve our tests and get experience with the system over time.”

In the meantime, though, school and staff-level rewards are an important aspect of the system, said California Secretary of Education Kerry Mazzoni.

“If you look at the API and test scores as a whole, they are going up, and this is a piece of that program,” said Ms. Mazzoni, a former chairwoman of the Assembly’s education committee who was recently appointed education secretary by Gov. Davis. “We believe that it keeps the focus on student achievement.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Calif. Test-Based Bonus Plan Gets Off to Rocky Start


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