The majority of inner-city high schools in Los Angeles are doing a worse job of educating low-income black and Latino youths than they were 10 years ago, according to a study of standardized test scores released today by the University of Chicago.
The study, believed to be the first comprehensive analysis of high school achievement patterns within a single large metropolitan area, challenges claims made by state and local education officials, including state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, that sweeping school reforms of the last five years have improved education and reversed California's slumping test scores.
The study also is expected to fuel debate over the controversial reforms, which have placed Honig and the California schools in the national limelight.
Although the state Department of Education last March reported a record jump in high school test scores, the study prepared by the Metropolitan Opportunity Project at the University of Chicago asserted that those gains "masked problems found in Los Angeles-area schools," where researchers discovered a widening gap in achievement between minority and white schools, particularly since 1980.
May Have Hindered Progress
One conclusion of the study is that recent California reforms aimed at raising academic standards have not helped the majority of poor and minority youngsters and, in fact, may have hindered their progress.
"The problem of the isolated, inner-city, low-income minority school has not been resolved but requires urgent attention," said Gary Orfield, a political science professor and director of the nonprofit project, which studies minority education and employment issues. "Nothing that has been done in the last decade is on the order of the magnitude of what is needed" to raise the quality of education at schools with largely minority enrollment.
The lowest-achieving minority schools in Orfield's study--which encompassed Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties--were mainly in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Cleveland, Grant, Van Nuys and Hollywood high schools were among schools showing the biggest declines in reading and math scores between 1976 and 1986.
Wilson and Millikan high schools in the Long Beach Unified School District were also near the bottom in both categories. Two Orange County schools, Anaheim High and Valley High in Santa Ana were on Orfield's list of the 10 worst in reading scores.
Orfield did find some exceptions. Two Los Angeles high schools, Lincoln and Garfield, were among the regional schools showing the biggest gains in math scores.
Orfield said the Metropolitan Opportunity Project has conducted similar studies in Chicago and Atlanta and found similar trends. He could not say whether the achievement patterns found in the four Southern California counties exist elsewhere in the state because he has not studied other urban areas in California.
The new study did not specify reasons for the poor performance at some schools. Orfield acknowledged that a wide range of social and political forces--such as demographic changes and certain Reagan Administration policies that reduced aid to poor families--may have contributed to the apparent deterioration of scores. He also suggested that California schools might not have provided enough individual attention to help minority youngsters meet higher statewide standards for performance.
Meanwhile, Honig, the chief architect of a 1983 state school reform act that stiffened high school graduation requirements and lengthened the school day, reacted angrily to the conclusion that state education reforms might not be working.
"The evidence points to the opposite conclusion," Honig said. "The reforms seem to have helped in minority schools. They are still low and have a long way to go, but they are making significant gains."
Honig, whose management of California schools is under investigation by a commission appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, criticized the Orfield study, in particular its special focus on three academic years--1975-76, 1979-80 and 1985-86. California test scores began to rise in 1984 and have inched upward each year since, a fact that Honig said the report did not sufficiently recognize.
Los Angeles school district officials also attacked the study, calling it "simplistic" and "superficial."
"I don't have a problem with the statistics. It's the interpretation," said Associate Supt. Paul Possemato. "The issue in my mind is, can the school system overcome all of the forces that descend upon it? If you say superficially that schools are not meeting the needs of the poverty child, well, neither are society nor parents nor courts nor police. It's all part of a comprehensive whole" that must be included in the solution to poor achievement.
Study of 483 High Schools