When the state announced last year that it would give cash awards totaling $14.4 million to schools that raised their test scores, some local educators privately expressed the fear that average scores would fall because more low-achieving students would be taking the exam.
To their surprise, the opposite has occurred.
In Los Angeles County, 12th-grade scores improved on the California Assessment Program test of basic skills, and although the rise is slight, it brought a sizable financial payoff.
One hundred and nine county high schools have won a total of $3.7 million in bonus money. Awards ranged from $111 for Ellington High School in Los Angeles to $140,818 for Rowland High in the east end of the San Gabriel Valley. Schools qualified for the cash awards if at least 93% of their seniors took the exam and the scores were better than those oflast year's seniors.
Statewide Scores Up Too
Statewide, 12th-grade scores in reading, writing, spelling and mathematics also rose this year compared to last year, even though many more high school seniors took the test than before.
"There was a lot of discussion around here about what would happen with the scores" because of the cash incentive, state Department of Education consultant Sue Bennett said from her Sacramento office. "Apparently, they (12th graders) took the test with better preparation. Or they took it more seriously."
At many high schools, administrators made a special effort to get at least 93% participation in the voluntary exam. Some schools staged rallies, some promised hamburger vouchers and others offered pep talks to 12th-grade classes.
"They did whatever they thought would work," said Bill Turner, testing consultant to the county superintendent of schools. "And in the main it worked."
The incentive program backfired at one high school in Chico, where four seniors persuaded many of their fellow 12th graders to deliberately fail the test when the administration refused to let them use a portion of any bonus funds earned for a beach trip. No such cases were reported in Los Angeles County, however.
County Seniors Improved
Test scores for the county's high school seniors rose from 59.4% to 60.1% in reading, 59.8% to 60.5% in writing, 68.0% to 68.3% in spelling and 64.3% to 65.3% in mathematics.
The scores were slightly below the state averages. The average scores statewide are 62.9% in reading, 63.2% in writing, 69.7% in spelling and 68.3% in mathematics.
Turner attributed the county's below-state-average scores to the high number of non-English-speaking immigrants entering county schools. According to county officials, 228,000 of the county's 1.2 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade have limited proficiency in English because it is not their native tongue.
The scores in the accompanying list reflect the percentage of correct answers given by the 12th graders to 31 questions, and they allow comparisons between individual schools and to the district and state averages. State officials caution that fluctuations of a few points in individual school scores are not statistically significant.
Because the test is meant to provide a snapshot look at achievement levels, scores are computed for districts and schools only; individual pupil scores are not released.
Twelfth graders took the exam last December. Third, 6th and 8th graders will take the test this month, and their scores will be released in the fall.
There were no surprises in the county's 12th-grade scores, Turner said. "Out of 82 districts, one can almost guarantee that some will go up a little, and some will go down a little," he said.
The scores generally reflect the socioeconomic realities for the students in various regions of the county, Turner said. Schools with a majority of students from poor families and whose parents have little or no college education tended to score lower than schools whose students come from wealthier, better educated families.
"Overall, the trend (in scores) is upward," Turner said. "So parents can conclude we are making progress."
At El Monte High School, close to 95% of the senior class took the exam, compared to only 63% the previous year, and the average scores rose 1% to 3% in the four test areas. As a result, the school earned $35,298, roughly $104 for each senior who was tested.
Despite the windfall, El Monte High Principal Dave Sandell was reluctant to credit the cash incentive program for the school's gains. "Our scores did go up. But whether 'Cash for CAP' had anything to do with it, I'm not sure," he said, noting that this year's seniors have maintained good grades throughout their high school years.