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Measure offers parents cash to raise test scores

Ohanian Comment: Funny thing: I was just saying to myself, "We haven't had an outrage of the day for a few days. Well, here's an outrage for our decade.

Money talks. It's the American way.

If an increase in standardized test scores is your goal, instead of giving a payoff to parents whose children whose scores improve, how about giving every worker a living wage--as their rights as human beings? Test scores would improve and the school wouldn't have to bother with all the ugly test prep.

Surely this teacher means well, but this doesn't lessen the perfidy of her proposal. Educators should help students and their families see the value of education, not tell them to value students by abritrary scores on secret tests. This kind of reasoning says the State Rules. Corporate Power Rules. We need to take back our children, take back our schools.

SACRAMENTO -- Billie Jo Aldrich-Fallert wants kids to do better on the California Standards Test -- so much so that she's willing to pay if they improve.

Aldrich-Fallert, a special education teacher at Porterville High School, believes scores would improve if the state were to give $1,000 to parents whose children score proficient or higher on all sections of the annual test administered in grades 2-11.

Legislative analysts say the measure could cost more than $1 billion.

With enough support, the idea could make the June 2006 statewide ballot.

Secretary of State Bruce McPherson gave Aldrich-Fallert permission this month to begin collecting signatures for her initiative. To qualify for the ballot, she must get 373,816 signatures of registered voters by Dec. 12.
A gigantic task for an educator of nearly 20 years who is venturing for the first time into the unwieldy world of politics?

Perhaps, but maybe not. She believes that if you don't try, you won't succeed. And she has a strong group of local supporters who, like her, believe that rewards motivate better than punishment.

"My goal is to give students and families a reason to do good on this test," says Aldrich-Fallert, 44, who is married and has two grown stepsons. "If a student does well in school, typically that family has made that a priority. Let's reward the family."

But fiscal conservatives say doing so at taxpayer expense is wrong at a time when California's coffers already are bone dry.
"Performing well on the tests and receiving a good score and a good education really ought to be its own reward," says Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party. "This is an unrealistic goal to reward children for doing something that they ought to be doing in the first place."

Teachers, though, say many kids don't care about doing well on a test that doesn't affect their report cards or graduation.

Assigning low-score blame
The California Standards Test measures progress toward the state's academic goals -- what students should know in each grade in subjects ranging from English and math to history and science.

The results help determine a school's Academic Performance Index score, regarded as a measure of success for a school and its teachers. It is a key component of California's education accountability program.

If kids do poorly on the test, teachers ultimately look bad. But nothing happens to the child. "There is no consequence for not doing well," says Diane Hernandez, a science consultant in the Standards and Assessment Division of the state Department of Education.
At Porterville High, Principal Steve Graybehl turned to a group of students after learning that scores were down.

"I asked them, 'How many of you in this room tried your best?' A few of them raised their hands. Most of them acknowledged that they really didn't try and it was just another test," Graybehl says.

But Pete Mehas, superintendent of schools in Fresno County, says paying parents is not a good fix. Educators should be responsible for making students understand the importance of doing well on the state test, he says.

"We in education cry out for local control, and now we go to the state to solve a local problem," Mehas says. "It's extremely poor public policy."

Teachers, principals, superintendents and parents should work together to bring up test scores, he says.

How the measure was born
Aldrich-Fallert doesn't think it's fair to place so much blame on teachers for low test scores. She says teachers do their best with limited resources.

And she isn't a fan of Gov. Schwarzenegger's ideas to reform education, in particular his ballot measure that would tighten requirements for teacher tenure.

Proponents of that measure asked for Aldrich-Fallert's signature recently outside of a Wal-Mart, where she had been shopping for school supplies.

She didn't sign the petition, but it gave her the idea to try to get her state-payment program on the ballot.

Aldrich-Fallert discussed it over lunch with two other Porterville teachers: Loretta Slocum, who teaches government and economics, and Elizabeth Shaffer, who teaches English as a second language.

Slocum thought it was a great idea. During her prep time, she did some research on the initiative process. In civics class, she teaches mostly about federal government, and she wanted to brush up on how the state process works.

"If that cigar-smoking, Hummer-driving character we have in office can do it, we can certainly do it," Slocum said, referring to Schwarzenegger.
The teachers pooled their money for the $200 filing fee, and they gathered the 25 signatures necessary to start the process.

The idea made its way through the Attorney General's Office and the Secretary of State's Office. On July 14, Aldrich-Fallert got the OK to begin gathering signatures. It's now one of 65 initiatives circulating for signatures.

The task is daunting. Aldrich-Fallert doesn't know how she'll gather hundreds of thousands of signatures in just 150 days. She hopes to rely heavily on the California Teachers Association, but doesn't yet have its endorsement.

She's written the CTA a letter asking for help.
Phil Brown, executive director of CTA's Visalia office, says the idea is "intriguing" but declined to elaborate. He said the concept could change several times before qualifying for a ballot.

Either way, Aldrich-Fallert is successful, he says: "It's amazing she has followed through and achieved this much."

Slocum is confident they'll get the signatures they need -- with or without CTA support. She expects teachers and parents to join the effort.
"We're not slaves to our teachers association," she says. "We're an educated group, and we can act independently."

Slocum says she doesn't know whether the state can afford such an expensive program, but she thinks it's worth discussing. "The state can't afford to do nothing to motivate students and parents," she says.

Paul Warren, a program analyst with the Legislative Analyst's Office, says the program could cost $500 million to $1 billion or more.
The Department of Education doesn't readily keep statistics showing how many students score proficient or above on all areas of the test. But by looking at other data, officials estimate that between 10% and 20% -- about 1 million students -- score at least proficient on each area of the test. The number of areas in which a student is tested varies from grade to grade.
More than 4.8 million students took the test last year.

Finding funding an issue
Warren warns that the cost would increase if more students do better on the test, knowing there's a $1,000 reward. "You could see the scores going up just because of the fact that money is available if you do well," he says.
Mehas, the superintendent in Fresno, says the money would cut into existing education funding. Nothing prevents Porterville's school district from creating a local incentive program within its own budget, he says.

"Why strap the state of California with a $1 billion bill that is going to come out of education funding because their students don't take it seriously?" Mehas says.

The initiative doesn't tell parents how to spend the money, but Aldrich-Fallert hopes parents would save it for their children's college education. If they were to spend it, at least it would go back into California's economy, she says.

Aldrich-Fallert acknowledges the expense but believes the state can afford it. It's a small fraction of the state's overall budget, which in 2005-06 is $117.3 billion.

A similar program slowed in recent years because of state budget woes.

The state-run Governor's Performance Awards gave money to schools and teachers when API scores improved to certain levels between 1999 and 2001. The program still exists, but lawmakers haven't funded it in the past few years.
Aldrich-Fallert estimates it would cost each Californian about $30 per year to fund her program.

"You can blow $30 on nothing. That's a fast-food meal out with your family," Aldrich-Fallert says. "I'm fine with [spending] $30 a year if it's going toward helping these students be more proficient."

She doesn't know whether voters will like her idea, but she has to at least try to get it on the ballot. Says Aldrich-Fallert: "The worst that can happen is it doesn't make the ballot or it doesn't pass."


— Jennifer M. Fitzenberger
Sacramento Bee; Fresno Bee




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