Thursday, September 16, 1999
Sound confusing? Just ask Monterey County school officials faced with a new, strings-attached funding offer out of Sacramento that, on the surface, seems to punish schools with the best-performing students. Schools "rewarded" for underachieving, however, face a do-or-die dilemma that has some principals wondering whether accepting the state''s money is even worth the risk.
Among the county''s 13 districts, students from Pacific Grove, Carmel, and Washington performed above the state average this year on a standardized test known as SAT 9. Here''s the rub: By posting such admirable scores, those three districts won''t qualify for a special funding program designed by Gov. Gray Davis to hold school administrators accountable for their students'' progress--or lack of it.
On the flip side of the coin, schools from Gonzales, North Monterey and several other Monterey County districts whose students fell below the state average--and whose principals accepted the state dollars--may feel the long arm of Sacramento bureaucrats if their students don''t improve on the SAT 9. Failure to elevate test scores could lead to the seemingly unthinkable: state officials could, if so moved, shut them down.
As one can easily imagine, opinions of the governor''s new approach to dealing with drooping test scores--and, ostensibly, under-educated students--run the gamut. Superintendents Jack Marchi of Pacific Grove and Catherine Gallegos of Washington, for instance, say they''re frustrated there are no incentives or awards for schools whose students, like theirs, test at higher levels. Marchi told state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Easton in a letter that while he doesn''t believe underachieving districts should be deprived of more money, Pacific Grove also suffers from "declining enrollment, old schools, and limited supplies."
In Carmel, staffer Paul Behan calls the state''s program a "mixed blessing." Not only does it unceremoniously point the finger at underachieving students, Behan says, it is also based on standardized test scores, the bane of many educational purists. He applauds Gov. Davis for setting a high bar in education, but suggests that state involvement "should be about assistance, not blame."
Moreover, the so-called "II/UPS" funding--in the form of a $50,000 grant per school, or up to $168 per student--is not guaranteed to all low-performing schools. While half of the state''s 8,000 schools were eligible for the money, only 430 were selected to receive funds based on geographic and other considerations. Of the 55 Monterey County schools that applied, a mere eight were selected from the districts of Alisal Elementary, Gonzales, Greenfield Elementary, Monterey Peninsula, North Monterey County, and Salinas High.
Some educators view the II/UPS funding as something of a Trojan horse. Schools chosen to receive the money are required to hire a state-approved, outside "evaluator" to help raise test scores by 5 percent a year. According to Pat McCaibe of the state Education Department, schools failing to achieve that goal by Aug. 2001 will face local intervention. Schools that still fall short of the mark in 2002 will get a visit from state officials.
What does "intervention" really mean? The sky''s the limit, according to McCaibe, who says the state can remake the staff, oust the principal, or turn a facility into a charter school. In the most extreme case, a school whose students continue to show no improvement can simply be shut down.
Not surprisingly, such draconian measures dissuaded several eligible Monterey County schools and districts from applying for the money. Among them was Salinas City Elementary, whose superintendent, Rob Slaby, denounced the II/UPS program as a means to "scare and threaten schools with high immigrant and second-language learner populations." Slaby says the state''s message is this: "When you''re poor and you don''t speak English, we''ll make you feel bad."
The King City Elementary District didn''t apply for the money either. Superintendent Steven Young reports that while there generally is a correlation between a district''s economic base and test scores, "the likelihood of achieving a consistent 5 percent growth rate may be very difficult."
Other district leaders were less put off by the funding program and its consequences. North Monterey''s superintendent, Leo St. John, says schools in his district were making individual decisions regarding whether or not to apply. In Gonzales all three of the district''s schools applied for the money--though not without some trepidation. "If we agree to the funding we need to demonstrate improvement," says Superintendent Richard Avarette. "We don''t like the idea of sanctions."
Despite the differing opinions about the worth and fairness of the state''s funding offer, most district leaders agree that standardized testing alone is neither an effective nor fair way of measuring students'' achievement. "The test," said Pacific Grove''s Marchi, "should be more diagnostic and cross-referenced with what''s being taught in class." As King City''s Young put it, "relying on scores alone is a false premise."