#Teachers Reject Testing Bribes”

Across California, a growing number of teachers are rejecting the financial incentives tied to scores on high-stakes tests.

By David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA – Remember spring fever? The slow time at school, when sleepy students looked out the window after lunch, waiting for the bell?

Well, these days spring has become a deadly serious season, and daydreaming is definitely not an option. For the last two years, when warm weather arrives in California classrooms, schools have gone test-crazy as students prepare for the new state-mandated STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) exam.

When the results finally come in, every school in California gets rated and placed on a scale from the lowest to the highest. And what might otherwise be viewed as a form of academic Olympics acquires a sharp financial edge as the state begins handing out big-time bucks to teachers and school personnel based on test scores.

This October, the state of California gave financial awards to teachers in 304 schools. Some received $5,000 apiece, a smaller number $10,000, and an even more select group $25,000 each. Governor Grey Davis, when he announced the program, obviously thought teachers would be overjoyed by the largesse. Instead, when the first round of smaller awards were handed out over the summer and fall, many educators said they were being bribed. Some even donated their money to different redistribution efforts as a protest.

And at a November hearing called by State Senator Dion Aroner to investigate the impact of testing, an English-immersion teacher at Berkeley’s Cragmont School announced she had decided to donate her $10,000 award to purposes obviously other than those which the governor intended. “It’s dirty money,” Reva Kidd charged. “We’ve had to fight hard for adequate salaries, but this money is a bribe, to make us complacent in the face of changes that are hurting students and teachers alike.” Kidd donated some of her money to a fund, which is redistributing awards among all Berkeley teachers, and some for a field trip for one of her colleague’s classes.

But her third choice must have really given the governor heartburn. The last part of her money she directed to Cal CARE, an advocacy group that organizes parents and faculty against high-stakes testing itself.

Both the larger Certificated Staff Performance awards (like Kidd’s) and the smaller Academic Performance Index awards made by the California Department of Education, go to schools which made the largest increases in student, standardized STAR test scores. And that’s the problem – the tie to the test. A large group of teachers feel that most classroom instructors and school personnel work hard, as do students themselves. To single out one particular school based on test scores ignores what teachers and students accomplish in hundreds of other schools throughout the state.


San Francisco’s Lowell High School was one of the first California schools to voice opposition to the awards. That was an irony itself. Governor Grey Davis, in announcing the program, implied that the most deserving schools would be those in the poorest communities. Teachers there, presumably motivated by cash prizes, would inspire pupils to make big jumps in test scores. Instead, Lowell is San Francisco’s premier elite campus, whose students are selected based on their previous high academic achievement.

Under the Academic Performance Index award program, 4800 schools like Lowell were selected to receive a total of $350 million as rewards for increased scores. All personnel at the chosen schools shared in the money – each receiving $591.

“Don’t get me wrong – we’ve got great faculty here at Lowell, and as teachers we certainly deserve more money,” said Ken Tray, site representative for United Educators of San Francisco. “But our friends and colleagues at Balboa High, for instance, also work their tails off. The awards are a slap in the face for them, not recognizing the hard work they do.”

Lowell teachers decided to encourage voluntary donations to a scholarship fund for students at schools which

didn’t receive the award. Tray says teachers supported the idea because the awards “seem like a back-door merit pay system.” Even Lowell’s principal, Paul Cheng, contributed his award to the fund.

In Berkeley, teachers went further. There the Berkeley Federation of Teachers set up an award redistribution committee. The union won agreement from the district that teachers would be allowed to indicate on a payroll checkoff form their preference for using their money as Kidd did – redistribution, a field trip fund, or donating it to Cal CARE .

The educational issues committee of the union then drew up a petition opposing the use of standardized tests entirely. Some 300 of Berkeley’s 600 K-12 teachers signed on. Among other objections, the petition declared that “the [California] tests are racially, culturally and socio-economically biased, unfair, and inappropriate for our students. It does NOT measure student achievement or teacher quality. The test itself and the API reward system perpetuate the huge economic, social, cultural, and language disparities among the state’s students.”

“High-stakes tests force us to teach in a way in which high scores become the most important goal,” explained Terry Fletcher, a third-grade teacher in Berkeley. “Teachers are forced to cram information into students, but not to encourage critical thinking or broader knowledge. There’s no emphasis on art or music, or even social studies. Testing really turns us into worse teachers.”

Berkeley teachers redistributed about $20,000 by mid November, according to Barry Fyke, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

Gail Mendez, a teacher at Bayview Elementary School in Richmond, says that despite some of the lowest teacher salaries in the state, she couldn’t in good conscience accept her $591. “I tell my fourth graders that you have to stand up for what you believe in. How could I face them if I took this money?” she asks.

David Bacon (dbacon@igc.org) is an independent journalist.