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Tuesday, May 03, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.

“High schools have to learn how to listen to kids.”

Sounds like something a student would say, right? Not this time. This statement was made by Torrey Pines High School principal Rick Schmitt no less, and is more than empty rhetoric.

In 2004, TPHS – historically the top-performing high school in San Diego County – was the only high school not to receive an Academic Performance Index number. Because so many students exercised their legal right to opt out of the Standardized Testing and Reporting tests last spring, the school was ineligible for an API score.

A school’s API number is given annually by the state to all public schools to indicate academic success. The number, between 200 and 1,000, is derived by crunching data from the scores on the battery of STAR tests given each spring to students in grades 2 through 11. If not enough students participate, no API can be issued.

Schmitt has vowed to turn things around this year, but not with a top-down edict demanding participation. Torrey Pines kids are too smart for that, he said. They know their rights, they know the tests don’t help them personally, and they can’t be fooled or threatened.

But they can be reasoned with and included as equal partners at the table. Honesty and mutual respect lead to collaboration, Schmitt said, and a joint resolution of problems.

So, last fall he approached the school’s top leadership – about 60 kids, he said – and discussed the subject with them openly. He called it an honest exchange.

Schmitt explained how having no API number hurt the school and the community. Taking the STAR tests is about presenting Torrey Pines in the best possible light, taking pride in the school, honoring teachers and giving back to others, he said.

It wasn’t an easy sell. Many students know there’s no penalty for not participating. And it doesn’t matter to them personally, because the STAR test scores are not part of their college transcripts and don’t affect their class grades.

But Schmitt convinced these students, many of whom themselves opted out last year, that it was about service to community over service to self.

“Last year we just assumed kids would do it,” said Schmitt, now in his second year as TPHS principal. This year, he said he’s taking responsibility for trying to understand why kids opposed the tests and seeing what could be done to achieve full participation.

A model for other schools

“Rick’s been a leader in the district,” said Margie Bulkin, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the San Dieguito Union High School District, of which Torrey Pines, located in Carmel Valley, is a part. “He’s helped the rest of the principals understand the issue better.”

By enlisting the students as part of a team, Schmitt was able to achieve unprecedented cooperation and understanding, Bulkin said. “The students said, ‘Thanks for noticing that this testing takes a tough toll on us.’”

Bulkin also said the lesson learned last year is that API does matter. “It’s a reflection of how good a school is,” she said. “Last year, Torrey Pines had a hiccup, and everyone knows we’re better than that.”

She said the tests are important because the results are used not just to indicate a school’s academic ranking but also as a way to modify and adjust instruction, “to fill in the holes.”

In 2003, the base API score for TPHS was 855, the highest for high schools in the county. Next was Preuss Charter School at 848, then River Valley Charter School in Lakeside at 823, San Dieguito Academy at 822, La Jolla High at 806, High Tech High Charter School at 802, and Coronado High and Poway’s Westview High, both at 800. In 2002, TPHS was also at the top in the county, with a score of 840. The state’s target is 800.

Bulkin said the California Department of Education states that an API number cannot be awarded if the participation rate for any content area falls below 85 percent. A 95-percent participation rate is required to calculate Adequate Yearly Progress, which is part of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

In 2004, according to Bulkin, TPHS had participation rates in specific content areas from a low of 81 percent to a high of 98 percent. Out of seven areas of testing, three had less than 85 percent (CST History/Social Science, CAT6 Mathematics, and CAT6 Science). Averaged together, the total participation rate for all seven content areas was 89 percent – for AYP, they needed 95 percent.

So Torrey Pines was disqualified. There would be no 2004 API number for the top public high school in the county.

Reprinted by permission of Carmel Valley News/Del Mar Village Voice

Read Part Two: Torrey Pines High School Reaches for the STARs

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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