By Sharon Noguchi | Mercury News
One student designed a palm tree with the dots on the answer sheet. Another breezed through 60 questions in five minutes. Others answered questions based on the quintessential teen attitude: whatever.
As schools across the state hunker down for annual tests that determine their fate and reputation, high school teachers face the daunting challenge of motivating students who may not know - or care - about the high stakes involved.
Already cramming for exit exams, SATs and advanced-placement tests, many teens think they have nothing to gain by acing, or even trying much, on the Standardized Testing and Reporting - STAR - tests.
STAR test season culminates now with a week of multiple-choice exams given from grades 2 through 11. And while elementary school teachers have little trouble cajoling students to "do their best on the test," some high schoolers see it as a chance to take a weeklong breather.
"There are people who show up late every day and do half the test," said senior Mike Laccabue of Monta Vista High in Cupertino. And while he himself never completely blew off the test, "I never cared if I got something wrong."
Mostly, he said, students "try to do it as quickly as possible." Then they catch up on class reading or listen to MP3 players.
Local educators emphasize that the overwhelming majority of students take the STAR tests seriously - and the comparatively high scores at South Bay schools indicate that they're right. But they worry about those who don't.
While the tests have no bearing on students' grades or what college they get into, it matters hugely to schools and districts.
The state compiles students' results into a single score that indicates how the whole school is doing. That number helps determine whether the campus is honored as a "blue-ribbon" school or whether the state takes it over for "failing."
"It's important for students to realize that this is how schools are actually judged, and that they're honoring their teachers," said Donna Hope, principal of Leigh High in San Jose.
How much student effort counts was vividly illustrated two years ago, when students at Downtown College Prep deliberately flubbed the test to protest the layoff of four popular teachers. The school's score plunged 203 points, the second-biggest drop in the state. Last year, seeing how their anger had hurt the school's reputation and ranking, students applied themselves and the school bounced back 173 points.
Educators have resorted to carrots and sticks - ranging from parties to threats of remedial class - to get the kids motivated.
Among the sticks, students who perform abysmally on the state test may have to enroll in a remedial math or English class - and sacrifice an elective, said John Najac, principal of Independence High in San Jose.
At other schools, students may be denied enrollment in AP or honors classes if their state test scores are too low.
Among the carrots is less homework and, at some schools, minimum days. The Santa Clara Unified School District provides granola bars and water to all test-takers, and a barbecue and pool party for top scorers. At the district's New Valley High, test-takers get a chance to win passes to Great America or Golfland.
Nearly all schools enlist support from home by sending letters asking that students be prepared and well-rested. Hope at Leigh High tells students their parents' property values will increase with higher scores.
At all schools, juniors who do well in math and English may qualify to skip basic English or math at California State University campuses.
Then there's school spirit. At Branham High School in San Jose, Vice Principal Mike Posey promises to dye his hair blue, one of Branham's colors, if the school gains more points than rival Leigh High does.
At San Jose High Academy, student body President Korie Benavidez has become an academic cheerleader. In his morning announcements, he chants "680 is the name of the game," a slogan painted on banners strung in hallways. That means the school is hoping to achieve at least a 680 on the 1,000-point scale.
Educators insist that getting students engaged is half the battle and point to steadily rising scores as evidence that their boosterism is succeeding.
"Given the right information about the exam, students want to do well," said Deborah Sigman, director of the Department of Education's standards and assessment division for the state.
Student response is mixed.
Junior Leena Suleiman of San Jose High Academy has studied intensely for the two international baccalaureate tests she'll take next week. And although she says she'll try hard, she admits that STAR "is not my No. 1 priority."
Sophomores Alex Barrera and Jaskaran Sohi both said they intend to try hard, but they know not all of their friends will. "They say, 'We don't really care; we don't want to go to college,' " Jaskaran said.
That's why serious students try to pump up their classmates. Kids at some schools actually study for the exams.
"We want to be able to say that we graduated from a good school," said Claudia Flores, 17, a San Jose Academy senior headed to Santa Clara University next year, who knows that the student body's collective score reflects on her. "But many students don't take it seriously."
The STAR test does have pluses for students.
"There's this advantage that your teachers don't give you that much homework," Monta Vista's Mike said. And seniors, who are exempt, really like test time. "This year I'm blessed, 'cause I don't have to take them."