Los Angeles County schools mirrored the statewide results in the annual basic skills test--which means both good and bad news.
The good news is that, in general, third- and sixth-graders showed improvement this year in reading, writing and arithmetic, continuing the upward trend of the last few years.
But the bad news is that eighth-graders locally and across the state fared distinctly worse, especially in reading and writing, according to recently released results of the California Assessment Program test. This is only the second year that the eighth-grade test has been administered.
To local educators, the eighth-grade slump is mystifying.
"To be honest, I don't know why they dropped. But I can tell you we are not pleased with our scores," said Supt. Ron Raya of the Bassett Unified School District in the San Gabriel Valley. Bassett's eighth-grade scores fell 6 to 19 points in reading, writing and arithmetic.
Even in some districts where eighth-graders scored higher, administrators were at a loss to explain the increase.
In the Dark
"I have no idea why we went up," said Supt. Wayne Boulding of the Burbank Unified School District, where eighth-grade test results improved by 11 to 19 points. "We didn't do anything special."
In the South Bay, two of 11 districts that operate grade schools bucked the statewide trend by reporting higher eighth-grade scores in all three areas tested, and several others showed improvement in some subjects.
El Segundo Unified's eighth-graders jumped 19 points in reading and inched up in written expression and math, while students in the third and sixth grades turned in generally strong performances in all three subject areas.
"We're still assessing the results to see what we did right," said Supt. Richard Bertain. "But at this point we think the improvement is an outgrowth of our efforts in recent years to focus more attention on the basics."
Wiseburn Elementary showed an average improvement of about 12 points at the eighth-grade level, while third-graders there gained in the three subjects and students in the sixth grade lost a little ground in reading and written expression. Elementary districts in Hawthorne and Hermosa Beach reported eighth-grade gains in two subjects, as did Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified.
The Peninsula district maintained its standing as the highest-scoring system in the area. Third-graders at Point Vicente Elementary, for example, scored 400 in reading, a 22-point increase over last year that placed them at the 98th percentile in comparisons with scores reported for other third-grade students in the state with similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
Other South Bay districts could take comfort in their third- and sixth-grade standings, even though most of their schools followed the state trend to lower scores at the eighth-grade level.
In Inglewood, where the predominantly minority schools have struggled hard in recent years to climb out of the test-score basement, third- and sixth-graders made modest gains in some subjects and avoided slippage in others.
Manhattan Beach also held steady, Lennox was mostly up, Redondo Beach turned in a mixed performance and Torrance scores rose in every category except sixth-grade math. Lawndale's third- and sixth-graders forged ahead with gains as high as 22 points in math.
Statewide, the third- and sixth-grade scores rose 3 to 7 points across the board. But eighth-grade scores dropped 10 points in reading and 4 points in writing, while the math score inched upward by 1 point. Countywide averages are not available, but in general this year's eighth-grade class slipped behind last year's group in reading, writing and math. There were no figures to compare to the social studies scores because that subject was included for the first time this year and only in the eighth-grade test.
Pat McCabe, consultant to the state testing program, could only speculate about the decline.
The number of students in the state who speak little or no English rose by 4% this year, while the number of students whose parents graduated from high school decreased by 2%, McCabe said.
"Those two things are going to have some impact," McCabe said, "especially in reading, which showed the most dramatic drop."
Educators generally find a strong correlation between student achievement and such factors as English proficiency and parents' education and economic level, according to McCabe. Students who are not fluent in English and whose parents are not college educated and have low incomes generally fare worse on standardized tests than students who come from more affluent backgrounds and whose parents are highly educated.
But Bill Turner, testing consultant for the office of the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools, disputed that theory.
"You can look at the number of additional LEP (limited English proficient) students. . . . Or you can look at socioeconomic status," Turner said. "But that doesn't always work."