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Wednesday, May 04, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series. Read part one.

Distraught after his school was disqualified from the state’s Academic Performance Index program last year due to insufficient student participation in the state’s annual testing program, Rick Schmitt, principal of Torrey Pines High School in Carmel Valley, said he and his team of students interviewed hundreds of students on campus to learn why there was so much disinterest in last year’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program, or STAR “We asked them what could we do,” he said.

After understanding their objections, the administration, together with the student leadership, hammered out a plan to address students’ complaints and motivate them to participate in STAR this year. “Our STAR campaign has 26 points,” Schmitt said, among which are the following:

1. The STAR tests will be administered after Advanced Placement exams have concluded, so they won’t interfere with studying for and taking the exams. AP exams are grueling tests that matter a great deal for individual students, for high school grades and college applications. Schmitt said the state allows schools a six-week window to administer the STAR tests, so scheduling STAR after AP tests was not difficult.

2. Students will take the STAR tests each morning for six days instead of four days like last year. And they will span a weekend, as many kids requested. They begin May 12 and run through May 19.

3. Students will only spend two hours a day taking the tests and will be able to attend their next two classes each day, rather than having a revised schedule with extended STAR testing and all three daily classes squeezed in afterwards.

4. Students will take the tests with their own teachers rather than in a hall or different environment, to make it more comfortable.

5. Less homework will be assigned during STAR testing. First, students will only go to two classes each day instead of three, and second, the administration is asking teachers to assign less homework during the STAR period.

6. The STAR tests can help prepare for the new SAT test, which is different this year than in the past. “The STAR is similar to the new SAT test,” Schmitt said. “It is subject-specific and is good practice.” Most university admissions departments consider SAT scores a crucial reflection of student achievement.

7. Schmitt said he will visit all 108 TPHS English classes to talk directly to students about the importance of the STAR tests. And he plans to ask them to do more than simply show up – he also wants their best efforts. “We’re shooting for 900,” he said, referring to the API score. Calling it a lofty goal (only three other high schools in the state have achieved that level), Schmitt is confident his kids can do it if they try their best.

8. The school is reaching out to parents, so they too can understand how a good API score is important not just for the school but also for the community. “Our community is interested in being the best,” Schmitt said.

9. Freebies. Students will get T-shirts, healthy snacks and other goodies each day.

In addition, posters and an aggressive STAR campaign on campus will promote the tests, and the top kids who were first approached by Schmitt will be taking the test themselves as an example. “These are kids who are looked up to,” he said. “Testing is part of the public school experience now. The leaders at our school understand that this is part of their role. They are the examples.”

Schmitt told the students that, for college applications, “our teachers write over a thousand letters of recommendation a year. They don’t have to do that, but they all do it. And they do it because they care.” He asked them how they would feel if teachers stopped writing letters for students who refused to take the STAR tests. “It was a good analogy,” he said.

An effective strategy?

If enough schools lacked sufficient participation, I reasoned, then the state would be forced to adopt systemic changes that would make accountability more meaningful for parents and less burdensome for students.

But that didn’t happen. What did happen is that Torrey Pines alone fell short and ended up with a gaping hole where an API number should have been. And, in truth, it did harm the community and the reputation of the school. And now I, too, see why it’s important.

Even though legitimate student objections were not addressed statewide, perhaps boycotting the tests last year was a successful strategy to stimulate change on a local level. Because so many TPHS kids opted out and created an API debacle, STAR became an issue and concerns were taken seriously.

Although it may have been an effective tactic, it is Schmitt who deserves deeper appreciation, for stepping up to the plate and asking students for help. By deciding to make students part of the solution, he fostered buy in to the process and cultivated school pride and enthusiasm. He raised awareness of the problem with both students and parents, and helped all of us see the damage the exemptions caused.

Schmitt is doing much more than simply getting more students to take the STAR tests. He is showing that he values them as intelligent, equal partners in education. When a high school principal reaches out to students with respect, honesty and a genuine interest in their concerns, anything is possible.

900. Wouldn’t that be something?

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

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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