About 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, and half a mile east of Interstate 5, stands the sprawling campus of Castaic Union Elementary school. One campus holds all of the district's 650 students. By contrast, the Los Angeles Unified School District has 333 elementary schools with 305,290 students.
Last year 134 Castaic students--the entire third, sixth and eighth grades--took the CAP test. On some elementary school campuses of the Los Angeles district, there are more than 134 students in one grade level.
Because just a handful of Castaic students took the state-mandated test, officials of the tiny Santa Clarita Valley district say that it is statistically impossible for the CAP scores to reflect the abilities of their students accurately.
And although this year's CAP results show Castaic's eighth-graders making substantial increases on the test, while third- and sixth-graders stayed at about the same level as last year, district officials are adamant that the CAP test is unfair to small school districts.
"Two-thirds of the school districts in this state have fewer than 2,500 students," Castaic School Supt. Reed Montgomery said. "That means that we are more typical than a large district such as Los Angeles. But the CAP test is most effective when you have large numbers of students to take the test."
Beverly Silsbee, vice principal and testing coordinator for Castaic, says one of the major problems for small school districts is the way the CAP test is administered. Instead of having every student take the entire test, each student takes only a portion of the multi-section exam. This is done to prevent cheating and to get a wider sampling of students' capabilities.
"Last year we submitted a total of 1.4 reading tests for the entire sixth grade," Silsbee said. "How can anyone get an accurate reading of what a class of 36 youngsters can do from 1.4 tests?"
State officials said they realize that the small numbers of students cannot produce the numbers of tests needed for an accurate reading. To compensate, however, the officials said that they add asterisks to the published results to indicate that the statistics need further interpretation.
Additionally, the state does not break down the statistics in as much detail for smaller school districts as it does for larger ones because the numbers have little meaning.
Despite their shortcomings, "the CAP scores work for the small districts just as they do for the large districts," said Diane Levin, a state Board of Education consultant specializing in CAP test interpretation. "The CAP test supposedly reflects subjects that are emphasized in the curriculum. It doesn't matter if it is a small district or a large district. If the material to be tested is in the curriculum, then the students will test successfully."
But the superintendents of smaller districts are not convinced by the state's explanations.
"The state claims that the CAP scores for small districts are accurate, but I don't believe them," said A. Lloyd Marshall, who serves as principal and superintendent of the 47-student Gorman School District, in the tiny town along Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles.
"I was taught that for a test like CAP you would need to test least 300 kids to get an accurate result," Marshall said. "There is no way you can convince me that CAP scores for a small school like mine are accurate.
Marilyn Harris Corey, superintendent of the 646-student Hermosa Beach City School District, said: "I don't understand why the state doesn't adopt another test, one that is fair to all of California's school districts."