San Diego The expression "high stakes" is a favorite idiom among San Diego educators these days. It doesn't matter if you're talking to people at the local, district, county, or state level -- if the subject is testing and accountability, you're going to hear that phrase. You'd think it was a poker game, all this talk about stakes. And it is, in more ways than one. Since even before Governor Gray Davis's Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA) was signed into law in April 1999, the state's program for measuring school performance has given rise to boasts, bitterness, tenuous allegiances, and bold cheating allegations.
Because, believe it or not, what's at stake in California's new public school accountability program is cash. Reward and punishment is the backbone of the PSAA -- see also Texas -- which has adults pointing more fingers than teary-cheeked eight-year-olds in the principal's office. In San Diego, the fallout from the most recent round of state testing, especially that surrounding an incident at Pacific Beach Middle School, has caused a media stir, which has done very little to elucidate who's to blame. Moreover, no one has emphasized in just how many ways the state's program fails students.
The cornerstone of the PSAA is the Academic Performance Index (API), a numeric index, ranging from 200 to 1000, which is supposed to rate school performance. Currently, a school's API is determined by a single standardized test, the so-called Stanford 9. (The California Department of Education claims that other indicators may be used in the future, but law requires that results on the Stanford 9 make up at least 60 percent of a school's API.) The Stanford 9 is an off-the-shelf bubble test that California and other states purchase from a private publisher.
In theory, this test can measure a school's adherence to the state's rigorous academic standards. Nearly every public school in California has administered the Stanford 9 to its students each spring since 1998. Using student scores on the test, the state assigns each school an API; if certain gains are made, the school and individual teachers stand to earn money through the Governor's Performance Award. If a school's API falls, it receives no cash award. However, if it's determined that a school did not administer the Stanford 9 properly, then the state punishes that school by denying it an award for a period of two years.
In October, the state announced that six schools in San Diego County and a total of 18 schools statewide were denied hundreds of thousands of dollars through this program because of alleged infractions of testing protocols that took place this past spring. The supposed breaches in the San Diego Unified School District ranged from a teacher at Scripps Ranch High School reading an exam question when giving directions at the beginning of the test to teachers at Baker Elementary School translating test instructions into Spanish.
(In 1998, the state Department of Education sued the San Francisco Unified School District over its refusal to administer the Stanford 9 to nearly 6000 students with limited fluency in English. The district challenged the state's testing requirement, contending that it violated those students' civil rights. Earlier this month, ending a two-year legal battle, the San Francisco School District agreed to give the test to thousands of students who are still not fluent in English.)
The most controversial irregularity took place in March at Pacific Beach Middle School. The school has been denied cash awards for two years because one of its most reputable teachers, Mark Heinze, allegedly supplied his class of gifted sixth-graders with questions from the Stanford 9 the day before the exam. The accusation turned the school inside out and exposed discord among San Diego educators. Some blame Heinze for costing the school what might have amounted to $150 per student, or $117,000, while others denounce a muddled accountability program and defend the teacher, who has won numerous awards, including San Diego County Teacher of the Year in 1997 and Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year in 1998. While Heinze maintained that he got the questions from materials he bought at a commercial bookstore and did nothing wrong, the school's principal, Charmaine DelPrincipe, argued before the district that he should be dismissed (the district disciplines, the state just takes money away). In the end, Heinze was suspended for five days and then transferred to the Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School.
Though the hearings divided local educators, the district officially supports the disciplinary action. David Smollar, the San Diego City Schools public information officer, says, "We're on record that we're proud of bringing forth violations. We don't want to be judged by artificially inflated scores. I'm sure that those schools that are ineligible in our district now feel pressure not to make the same mistakes again."
DelPrincipe, who retired from her position as principal at Pacific Beach Middle School in July, says that she was disappointed Heinze was not dismissed. "I think that if one teacher cheats then it's unfair for a whole school and the kids to lose access to the money," she argues. "The penalties have to be hard on the individual and not on the school. As it is, that's not the way it works; the individual does not get any penalty, or a little penalty, to tell you the truth. At one point everyone agreed that he should be dismissed.... But he's tight with [San Diego City Schools Superintendent Alan] Bersin, so it came back that no, he's not going to be dismissed.
"The administrative transfer came later, during the summer," DelPrincipe adds, "and was the result of some other things that happened. It had to do with the tenor of what would happen if he were to return to the school. Was it in the best interest of the kids that were still there? You have 19 kids who were in his class still there and who knew what happened."
According to Heinze's attorney, John Vanderpool, and to many local educators as well, the assumption that anyone "knows what happened" is precisely what reeks about this case. Vanderpool is reluctant to let his client speak about the incident because he fears how the district might respond. However, he points to what's already been made public -- that none of the tests were ever missing from Pacific Beach Middle School. There's a very stringent log system for the Stanford 9 tests, Vanderpool says, and the records show that there were no irregularities at the school. In fact, it has never been proven that Heinze did anything wrong.