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June 1, 2012 > Huskies show their STAR power

Huskies show their STAR power

By William Marshak

Every public school student from grade school through their senior year in high school knows about STAR testing. But few students, fewer parents and just a handful of others are aware its significance and effect on schools.

Washington High School Assistant Principal and STAR Coordinator Lance Miller explains that in an effort to evaluate and measure effectiveness of teaching and learning at the wide variety of schools throughout California, a series of Standardized Testing And Reporting (STAR) exams are administered in math, reading, writing, science, and history to students in grades 2 through 11. Most exams are in a multiple choice format but a writing assessment is administered to fourth and seventh grade students. Schools, teachers, parents and students are informed of testing results. The philosophy of this testing is to follow the progress of each student throughout his/her primary and secondary school years, revealing strengths and weaknesses in the learning process.

Established by the State Legislature in 1997, STAR testing has since developed modified formats to include all students, no matter what learning challenges are involved. The State Board of Education (SBE) reports achievement levels for each pupil: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic or Far Below Basic; composite scores that can be analyzed in many different ways are given for school performance. "Students who test at the 'Advanced' level in all core classes are awarded a Golden State Seal Diploma, a high honor," says Miller.

Academic Performance Index (API) ratings are given to schools through a complex formula using a composite of California Achievement Tests, growth targets and, for high schools, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). This is an important tool for educators and an indicator of school performance. Miller notes that in order to make sense of exam results, schools need the willing and active participation of students. "If students do not take the test or are not motivated to concentrate on the questions, we are missing important data." Also, the impact of lower API ratings can have a detrimental effect on college admissions for graduates since grade comparisons may favor those from highly rated high schools.

Just as STAR exams are ubiquitous throughout schools, so is the love of pizza. In conversations with Washington High School Activities Director Helen Paris, Paul Shamieh of Papa John's Pizza in Newark agreed to donate a pizza in exchange for a can of food but also responded to Paris' challenge to "take it up a notch." A noticeable lack of enthusiasm for STAR testing among older students at the school was a problem. In response, a "Star Focus Group" of concerned students formed; they needed to inform others of the serious consequences of indifferent efforts, both to themselves and the school. A challenge was issued to the student body... if Washington High School achieved a 99 percent attendance level for STAR testing, Papa Johns would give a free pizza to every Washington High School student in exchange for a can of food for families in need.

Motivating some students to take STAR testing seriously can be a difficult task so the Focus Group, including students from all classes - freshman, sophomore, junior and seniors, worked to encourage students to attend STAR exams and raise the level of participation. They were faced with a big challenge; some students felt no reason to care and saw no impact of STAR testing on their school experience; peer pressure from older students had changed positive perceptions of STAR testing to one of indifference and students more focused on 'life skills' classes and electives rather than core academic subjects, saw little relevance. The focus group responded saying, "We told them that if our school ratings go down, their favorite electives would be in jeopardy." When free pizza was thrown into the equation, students became very interested. "They were really heated up about that."

Never underestimate the power of pizza. The Washington High School Huskies did not disappoint and 99.5 percent of eligible students showed up for STAR testing. On May 23, true to his word, Shamieh was on campus to help hand out certificates for free pizzas to a huge crowd of Husky STARs.

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