After watching third-grade scores on the California Assessment Program test of basic academic skills founder for several years, officials of the Burbank Unified School District decided to act.
Using a breakdown of test results, the district revised its third-grade reading and math curricula by placing more emphasis on areas that appeared to be weak.
In the spring, the changes filtered down to classrooms at Burbank's 11 elementary campuses and the results were dramatic, especially at Providencia and Roosevelt schools.
Roosevelt's third-graders increased their 1987 reading scores by 60 points over the previous year's, their writing scores by 96 points and their math scores by 16 points.
Providencia's third-graders increased their 1987 reading scores by 33 points over 1986, their writing scores by 38 points and their math scores by 52 points.
A marked improvement also was seen in the two schools' percentile rankings, which indicate how well a school performs compared to other schools throughout the state.
Altogether, the new results advanced Roosevelt and Providencia students from the middle levels of average scores statewide to the top 10%-15% of the third-grade level.
To Burbank educators, the years of mediocre CAP scores had pointed to curriculum weaknesses. CAP test questions are based on state achievement goals for elementary and secondary students. Officials speculated that consistently poor scores meant there was a gap between state standards and what was being taught in Burbank classrooms. To close the gap, they decided to fine-tune their curriculum, using the CAP test as a guide.
"We never want to get to the point where the state dictates to us what we are going to teach and when we are going to teach it," said David Aponik, coordinator of the district's research and evaluation. "What we want is a curriculum that is a gentle blending of the district's goals and the state's goals."
The Burbank curriculum revision began three years ago when elementary-education specialists gathered at district headquarters to review CAP test results. Revisions were made in the curriculum for all grade levels, but, at first, the main focus was on third-grade math and reading.
In math, test results indicated that third-graders had problems counting by 5s, 10s and 20s. The youngsters had difficulty translating words into numerals and often missed questions in which they had to show that the value of one number was "greater than" or "less than" the value of another.
CAP reading test results showed that Burbank third-graders sometimes confused vowels and consonants and had problems identifying words that rhymed with each other.
"We took a look at textbooks and other materials we use. We looked at results from other standardized tests, and we looked at our teaching methods and when we were introducing certain subjects to our students," Aponik said.
"We found that there were some areas that needed improvement."
Aponik's team made several recommendations. Supplemental texts and workbooks were added to required reading lists. Workshops were set up so elementary teachers could retool their teaching skills. And special school improvement projects were devised to tackle problems at individual campuses.
At Providencia, math test-taking skills received special attention. Principal Harold Vences said students were shown how to fold scratch paper underneath test problems so they could begin computation immediately without wasting time copying the original problem. Simple hints such as answering the easy questions first and returning to the difficult questions were also given to students.
"We told the kids that they were expected to take this test seriously and it was important to show everyone how much they had learned," Vences said. "We didn't want to overdo it, but we wanted them to know that the CAP test was important."
The tips worked: Providencia's CAP math scores jumped from the 67th percentile statewide in 1986 to the 89th percentile in 1987.
When a school scores in the 89th percentile, that means it has done better than 88% of the other schools.
At Roosevelt, the emphasis was on improving reading and writing. Teachers in all grade levels spent extra time on vocabulary, punctuation and capitalization.
The Roosevelt reading program helped raise third-grade reading scores from the 22nd percentile statewide in 1986 to the 93rd percentile in 1987. Writing scores soared from the 46th percentile in 1986 to the 94th percentile statewide in 1987.