History teacher Charles Bussey was sick of watching star students race through the state tests or bubble in meaningless patterns on their answer sheets every year at Valhalla High in El Cajon. Those tests meant everything to the state — and nothing to the kids.

“How do you hold a school accountable if you don’t hold the students accountable?” Bussey asked.

Test scores spell out the fates of schools under No Child Left Behind, the federal law that outlines how schools are graded. They shape their reputations. They can even tug at nearby home prices. But they usually mean little to the students who actually take them. The scores typically have nothing to do with college, graduation or grades. They’re just scores.

That changed last year at a handful of schools in Grossmont Union High School District, where teachers told teens that they could boost their grades if they significantly improved or excelled on state tests. If students had something at stake, teachers reasoned, they would work harder to score high. Nobody would suffer a lower grade for bombing the exam, but some students had a shot at a higher one.

It seemed to work at Valhalla, an excelling school that scored even higher last summer, acing almost all of its No Child Left Behind targets. English, history and science teachers at Valhalla offered to hike grades by 5 percent if students improved greatly or scored in the top echelons on the corresponding tests the next spring. Principal Mary Beth Kastan said the carrot coaxed teens to shine on the tests.

“I actually had teachers saying, ‘I can’t wait ’til we get our scores back,’” Kastan said. “The kids were taking it so seriously. That never would have happened four or five years ago.”

But the perk alarms some parents, students and educators who worry that it puts too much weight on a single, external exam. Some fear it could penalize children who don’t take the tests or whose teachers don’t offer the bump. George Palermo, a Grossmont parent, argued that it undercuts the reliability of report cards and fudges class rankings, which play a part in college admissions.

Students will quickly learn to bomb the test the first time around, he said, so that they can show a big increase and grab a grade hike. “What does a grade mean anymore if they can do that?” Palermo asked.

Roughly 290 grades were changed out of the 5,500 tests that students took at Valhalla, mostly pushing up Cs and Bs. There were a few wrinkles in the rules: Honors students couldn’t get the boost. Neither could students with an F. And though the school has been accused of imposing the plan, Kastan said no teacher had to offer the boost if they didn’t want to.

Similar practices have cropped up at other schools in Grossmont, which serves more than 24,000 middle and high school students in East County: El Cajon Valley High will pump up grades by one letter if teens ace the corresponding exam. West Hills High does the same, but only for math. Monte Vista High gives half a grade for a high score. Elsewhere in California, schools in San Juan Capistrano and San Joaquin County have tried it out, too.

Grossmont Superintendent Bob Collins said such incentives are no different than other kinds of extra credit that teachers have wide latitude to control. Grades are never completely the same from class to class. Kastan added that some students already get a grade boost by taking advanced or honors classes. She believes the boost is a logical and effective way to motivate students. State tests are worthy of credit, she said, because they’re based on the material that teachers are already supposed to cover.

Under the law, teachers are the only people who can decide grades. Grossmont rules say that grades throughout the district should be “sufficiently consistent,” but don’t explain what that term means. Some school board members are leery of linking test scores to grades, but aren’t sure what they can do.

“I’m opposed to changing grades based on anything that is outside the classroom,” said Gary Woods, a Grossmont board member. “But we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. We want students to do well on the tests, but we don’t want to get involved with grade inflation.”

Dick Hoy, another board member who spent decades as a teacher, said he shared the same worries. “I’m really uneasy with it. But if a teacher wants to use it, it’s up to them, not me.”

Superintendent Collins said he’s checking whether any schools ran afoul of the rules by telling teachers to give the boost, but has no indication any schools violated the law. Palermo and his wife believe that Valhalla and other schools have already violated the “sufficiently consistent” rule. Some parents are so unhappy with the grade boosts that they are threatening to pull their kids out of state testing, which is legal but could end up penalizing the school under No Child Left Behind.

One of them is Terri Linman. “They’re bribing them with grades,” said Linman, an educator who helps professors improve their instruction at San Diego State University. “If we can’t make the ethical decision about what’s best for students, we have no choice but to say we’re not going to be involved.”

School officials say the fear that grade boosts would skew class rankings is exaggerated. Morales said the children who can benefit from the bonuses are simply in a different league than those whose rank would count them in or out of a selective school. Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, agreed but cautioned that generally, “a lot of idiosyncrasy in grading practices does not improve the reputation of a district.”

And for better or worse, reputations are at stake. Valhalla High Assistant Principal Sam Lund said that education has become a competitive marketplace where schools need good facilities and booming scores to draw families. Like it or not, Lund said, test scores matter. But critics argue they matter for the wrong reasons.

“Raising our grades is much too drastic,” said Mitchell Winkie, a junior at Valhalla. “It seems like the point of all this is to make the school look better.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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