When Jaime Castellon came home with a ribboned medal and two trophies for winning races as a member of Hollywood High School's junior varsity swimming team, his mother was quick to act. Proudly, she set the prizes in the most prominent place in the Castellon household, atop the family's color television console.
"As soon as people come in the door, they see the trophies," said Jaime, slightly embarrassed by the attention they bring.
Swimming awards are only the most visible signs of progress the 16-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant has made as his first year of school in the United States winds down.
The confusion that marked his first days in Hollywood after he emigrated more than a year ago has all but disappeared. With three weeks of class left, he no longer runs to Spanish-speaking friends to find his way around the school's maze-like campus. His report cards are studded with A's and B's. His English has improved to the point where he can converse, however haltingly, with fellow students.
Jaime Castellon's successes, like so many at Hollywood High School, proceed on a modest scale. A tortuous sentence spoken with perfect diction, a once-difficult paragraph now mastered, a formerly strange American custom suddenly adopted--all are the small victories that mount up over a school year.
They are cherished victories in a school starved for success. Each year, the published results of California's standardized tests bring bleak news to the school's students and teachers. Although the last year has shown a slight improvement in the school's overall scores--the most encouraging was this year's five-point increase in the spelling portion of the California Assessment Program test--Hollywood High still ranks poorly among other schools in Los Angeles and across the state.
The gap between Hollywood High's test score failures and its smaller, personal successes raises fundamental questions about how an immigrant student population affects a school's mission and whether that mission itself should change.
"You really start wondering whether we should redefine our entire notion of success," said Ray Miller, a Hollywood High physics teacher who doubles as the school's statistician. "As long as we have huge numbers of new arrivals from foreign countries each year, there's no way for our test scores to improve dramatically."
This year, for the first time, the California Department of Education used students' language proficiency as a factor in evaluating the California Assessment Program tests. But to the disappointment of Miller and other teachers at Hollywood High, the language factor apparently did little to change the school's overall scores.
"Language proficiency didn't seem to carry much weight," Miller lamented. "The scores don't show much change at all."
Even if they had, the language-affected scores are not reported by newspapers and television. "We'd still get the same bum rap," Miller said.
Over the last school year, Hollywood High Principal Willard Hansen has directed a school-wide effort to bring the scores up. Teachers have given test-taking pointers to their students and, in some classes, spent additional time on the kinds of questions often asked on the standardized tests.
Effort Paid Off
To Hansen, the extra effort has paid off. "The scores are up some," he said. "We're going to get them as high as they can conceivably go. These are our report cards to the public."
But most teachers expect the improvements to continue in minor increments at best, as long as Hollywood High is flooded each year by a new wave of immigrants. The school's scores are hurt most, teachers and administrators say, when English-poor emigre students taking the tests are confronted by words they have never seen before.
Until she took the state's Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills last month, Yue-Hua Pai thought she was making progress. The 16-year-old immigrant from Taiwan who calls herself "Kitty" has been a model student in her 11th-grade English-as-a-second language class, with an above-B average.
But two grueling hours with the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills--her first encounter with an American standardized test--left Kitty Pai stunned. "So many of the words I never saw before," she said. "All my friends thought it was hard."
"The immigrant kids don't react well to the state tests," said Steve Sloan, who heads Hollywood High's English-as-a-second-language program. "The ones who are motivated come out of the tests with a sense that they've failed, that the progress they've been making just isn't enough. The ones who aren't motivated don't care anyway."
According to Sloan and other Hollywood High teachers, the standardized tests are doubly damaging to the school's efforts. "The results don't reflect the achievements the newer immigrant kids have made in English and they also obscure what the native Americans and the more established immigrant kids have accomplished," Sloan said.
New Definitions of Success