09/12/2011 02:05 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

Under the Watch of Principal Randall Delling, North Hollywood High School Racks Up Local and National Attention

It's not enough for North Hollywood High School Principal Randall Delling. He is a man who wants more. He expects it of himself, his faculty and his staff -- and his students, who return to school on Wednesday.

North Hollywood High School recently landed in the national spotlight by earning a Washington Post ranking in the top 1 percent of schools in the nation to prepare its students for college.

His students are scoring well on the California Standardized Tests with a rating of over 750 this past year, up more than 40 points from the previous year. In fact, the scores earned his school a friendly victory over Van Nuys High, and now that school's principal must dress up as North Hollywood High's Huskie mascot at an upcoming varsity football game.

Nearly 40 percent of his students make it into college, and not just the students in the school's magnet programs for the advanced sciences. With Project Step-Up, middle school students from families who have never been to college are groomed for it before they ever reach North Hollywood High.

Delling was named the California Secondary Principal of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators. Later this month he will attend a Washington, DC, conference with award recipients from around the country.

But all of that isn't enough for him.

"I'm not satisfied," Delling said. "We need another 43 points" on the standardized tests, he said.

When he goes to Washington to represent his school's achievements, people are likely to hear some straight talk from the former drill sergeant. Delling, who rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle, has a lot to say about standardized tests and college preparation.

"The whole measurement system is corrupt," Delling said of standardized tests. "It can fit assembly lines, but we're not producing bottle caps. We're developing human minds."

There are numerous problems with the tests, he said. By law, parents don't have to force their children to take the exam. Yet principals have to get 9 percent of their students to take it. Students say there isn't any incentive for them to do well.

"I ask students why they do so poorly and they say, 'It doesn't count for class grade, graduation or college admissions,'" Delling said.

But as a man who "hates to fail," the principal has found a way to get his students interested in the tests -- incentives.

Students who score well get off-campus lunch passes for the year, with their parents' permission. The high scorers also get to take a shot at their principal, in a sense, during lunch hour. Delling will paint himself blue and sit in the lunch room as his top students toss pies at him.

That's not his only trick. Delling says that when the standardized tests were instituted 12 years ago, there wasn't any playbook given on how to produce the required success rates.

"There was no 'how' considered," Delling said of the minimum acceptable scores required to ensure teachers would keep their jobs. "What was considered was the punishment... Teachers understand their jobs are at stake."

He defends the record of his teachers, which is another reason he wants his students to score well.

"These are intelligent, caring, hardworking people who will do whatever they can to lift academic integrity," he said.

Delling has found ways to make the tests work for his school. Because students saw no connection between the tests and their grades, teachers now incorporate sample test questions into their curriculum. It's only a small part of the overall curriculum, because Delling is not a fan of the tests, which he says emphasize technical, data-heavy learning over traditional liberal studies, such as literature.

"This rote testing that masks as reform is dehumanizing," Delling said. "It doesn't matter if they can write or think outside of the box. It only matters if they check the right box."

However, by including sample questions as part of the regular curriculum, students are better prepared for the actual tests, and teachers keep their jobs.

The principal is quick to note that he isn't opposed to some of the goals of standardized testing. It's how they've been applied that troubles him.

"Nobody would say don't measure [learning]," Delling said. If students aren't ready to move on to the next grade, they should not be advanced, he said. The response he often hears is that such a practice will erode self-esteem. "Self-esteem isn't something you get as a gift; you earn it," Delling said.

While he concedes he has some innovative proposals, he isn't adamant that he is right about everything. Delling's frustration is that many people are not ready or willing to engage in the difficult talks that will bring about positive change. Meanwhile, he continues to find ways to work around a system that poses challenges.

Testing is hardly the only thing on the principal's mind.

"Nine years ago I made a decision to build a college-going community," Delling said.

His efforts seem to have paid off: earlier this year, the Washington Post ranked North Hollywood High as one of the top 200 schools in the country to prepare students for college.

The school has received funding for Project Step-Up, which prepares students for college by working with them and their families starting when the students are in middle school. Delling credits the school's "highly competent counselors." He wishes he had more counselors, but they "still get the job done with what we have." Though the program has some funding this year, the amount remains uncertain.

Another tactic has been to pay for his students to take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) yearly, so they are well versed in the test by the time they take the SAT college entrance exam. He has concerns about being able to continue to fund the PSAT.

While 40 percent of his students made it into college last year, he doesn't believe college is for everyone. Delling thinks the educational system needs to provide for vocational training as well.

The principal also addresses the expense of college and the number of available classroom seats in California's higher education system.

"Parents are asking, 'Why spend $40,000 to $400,000 when there is no job on the other end?,'" he says. Moreover, he says, "let's say we get every senior ready for college, where would they go? The seats don't exist."

He hopes to bring such questions to policymakers next month, when he goes to Washington, DC, to attend the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

This article first appeared on North Hollywood-Toluca Lake Patch.