Arthur E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas is seemingly a parent's dream school.
The campus appears immune from troubles with drugs and gangs. Classes are small and filled with youngsters who genuinely appear eager to learn.
But the school's idyllic image was shattered earlier this month when the CAP scores were released. Wright had always scored above the state's average, but the 1985 results were near the bottom.
Eighth-grade reading scores plummeted 60 points, written expression scores dropped 41 points and math results slipped 32 points.
Wright's sixth-graders fared just a little better. Their reading scores fell 31 points, but written expression scores fell only 10 points and math scores dipped nine points.
"For the life of me, I can't explain this," Wright Principal Frank Simone said. "The curriculum is the same. The courses are all compatible with ones we have offered before. There is no logic to what happened."
As Simone continued to search for an answer to his school's poor showing, he picked up the stub of a yellow pencil.
"If there is any answer to what happened with our CAP scores, this may be it," he said with some hesitation. "The No. 2 pencil."
Simone remembers reading a memo from the Las Virgenes Unified School District stating that No. 2 pencils could be substituted for the special pencils usually used to fill out answer sheets. These forms are electronically scanned and graded by computers.
A second directive from district headquarters rescinded the first recommendation. Some computers cannot read marks left by the low-carbon No. 2 pencils, the new memo stated.
But the second memo arrived too late. Wright students had already taken two important standardized tests with No. 2 pencils.
The principal and officials at the state Board of Education have discussed the possibility of reviewing the CAP answer sheets. Simone said he doubts the state will be willing to shoulder the expense to regrade the tests.
But even with the knowledge that pencils may have been the cause of poor test results in other schools, Simone is worried that his explanation will look like a "cop-out" to outsiders.
"I don't want people to think that I'm looking for an out, an excuse for our performance," Simone said. "I don't want people to think that we are placing the blame on the pencils and leaving it at that. This has really shook all of the staff up, and we aren't just sitting by. We are doing something."
The poor test results will not translate into a loss of funding for Wright. It is, however, a blow to the school's prestige.
The low test scores have sparked a number of new programs at Wright. For instance, every week each class devotes 10 to 15 minutes to "sponge activity," the code name for a formal review of a subject.
Assignment sheets detailing homework and classroom assignments are taken home weekly by all Wright students so that parents can review what their children are doing. Some Wright teachers ask that parents sign the sheets.
Finally, an idea Simone had four years ago to provide a block of time for students to read was finally started Dec. 2. For 25 minutes before the start of sixth period, everyone in the school--from students to secretaries--stops to read as part of a program called SURF, or Sustained Uninterrupted Reading Forum.
As for the pencils, Simone said he has already laid in a large supply of mechanical marking pencils for the 1986 round of standardized tests.
"Next year the story will be on all the geniuses at Wright, because our scores will zoom out of sight," Simone said.
"I should have bought those pencils last year. This shouldn't have happened. That's the bottom line."