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."
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."
For example, in Culver City, the percentage of students who speak little or no English and who come from families receiving welfare rose slightly in the third, sixth and eighth grades. In theory, that could contribute to a dip in the scores. In fact, Culver City's eighth-graders slipped 1 point in writing and 12 points in reading. But their average math score rose 19 points, and the third- and sixth-grade scores improved across the board.
Similarly, in the East Whittier school district, the number of limited-English-speaking students dropped from 4.3% to 2.9% and the parent education level rose slightly to show that most students had parents who had some college education. But, instead of improving, the eighth-grade scores fell 4 points in math, 14 points in reading and 13 points in writing.
Question of Responsibility
Examples such as these make Turner wonder whether the eighth-graders should be blamed for their poor showing.
"It may be a fault of the test," he said. "Maybe they (state education officials) haven't worded the thing correctly. But that's speculative."
The newness of the test was cited by educators in several districts where eighth-grade scores fell. In the Hacienda-La Puente school district, for example, testing director Caroline DeOlden noted that while eighth-grade scores dropped slightly on the California Assessment Program test, they rose in another standardized test, the California Achievement Test. Many districts have used the achievement test for years to track the progress of students in all grades.
"That is the test we pay the most attention to," she said. "I'm afraid the eighth-grade scores (in the California Assessment Program) are going to bounce all over for a number of years."
More Results Needed
Ed Krucli, director of elementary curriculum in the Bellflower school district, said that test results for at least three or four years are needed "before we can see what kind of trend we have going."
Despite the skepticism about the meaningfulness of this year's test, the discouraging eighth-grade performance has motivated many school districts to better prepare next year's test-takers.
"We have to focus in on what is being tested and make sure it's in the curriculum and instruction," Krucli said.
State consultant McCabe had one other possible explanation for the dip in eighth-grade scores.
"Last year was the first year of the eighth-grade test and so everyone was excited about it and got their kids all psyched up to take it. Maybe the second year they just didn't work quite as hard," he said.