Help win education’s STAR Wars

Forcing Carl to focus through a week of STAR testing was harder than beating Darth Vader in a light saber duel.

“Do I have to take the test?” Carl moaned.

“Yes,” I told him.

“Can I just make up answers?” he whined.

“No!” I exclaimed.

“But nothing will happen if I do, right?”

“I’ve got a real bad feeling about this,” I said to myself.

Welcome to the STAR Wars of California public education. I enjoyed the adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie but never yearned for Jedi powers until I had to proctor the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams as a high school teacher.

California requires students in grades two through 11 to take the test each spring. The goal to measure schools’ effectiveness is reasonable, but the massive effort has a fatal flaw, like the exhaust port which the Rebellion used to blow up the Death Star.

While the state uses the test scores to assess schools, schools may not use them to assess students. Kids’ scores do not affect their grades, grade promotion or college admissions. This “Phantom Menace” escaped notice when the program began in 1997.

With nothing to gain or lose, students can simply space out, filling random bubbles on their answer sheets without even reading the questions. In an “Attack of the Clones,” many do just that.

This problem only worsened when scholarship money once attached to STAR disappeared. Then even the high-achieving kids lost their only incentive. To teachers already struggling to motivate their students, this calamity struck like the massacre of Jedi in “Revenge of the Sith.”

I can think of no other field that attaches so much importance and at least $50 million of taxpayers’ money a year to such an obviously flawed assessment, but let me suggest “A New Hope.” We can vastly improve the program’s validity by rewarding high-scoring students in grades nine and above with credits towards admission at public universities. This simple change would invigorate the program with more enthusiasm than a forest full of Ewoks without costing a dime.

Unfortunately, we may be headed in the opposite direction. Without addressing the student accountability issue, lawmakers want to connect test scores to teacher evaluations, like Princess Leia chained to the grotesque Jabba the Hut. This idea makes less sense than using Luke Skywalker’s prowess at repairing his uncle’s farm equipment to judge Yoda’s ability to teach him The Force.

And what about students who dislike their teachers? Many kids would use the test to attack them out of spite. This sinister scenario would hit like the evil Emperor’s assault on the rebels in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Teachers yearn for a “Return of the Jedi” to end this dysfunction and injustice, but it will take many heroes to win the STAR Wars. Educators, parents, current and former students, concerned citizens and voters together must speak loudly until lawmakers and bureaucrats understand and act on this issue.

No one benefits when teachers are forced to beg their students to cooperate like Leia pleaded to Obi Wan Kenobi, “Help me. You’re my only hope.”

Instead, let’s work together against the Death STAR, like the rebels who destroyed the Empire’s evil space station. “Yahoooo!” Han shouted. “Let’s blow this thing and go home.”

Bay Area News Group, 2011