While all third-, sixth- and eighth-grade pupils in the state took the California Assessment Program (CAP) test this spring, it was their schools that got graded, receiving report cards from the Department of Education on how they fared in teaching basic subjects.
Since the state began releasing scores to schools last month, educators throughout the Southland have been studying them for clues to what they are doing right and areas where they could improve.
The test scores are not intended to disclose very much about any one student or classroom. Educators believe they are useful in assessing a school's or a district's performance, and local school districts use CAP scores for everything from fine-tuning their curriculum to evaluating principals.
A drop in CAP scores can be a goad to improving a school, while an increase in scores can be viewed as evidence that efforts to improve are working. Long Beach Unified School District administrator Richard Van Der Laan described the scores as one effective way to take a school's "temperature."
"We're always thrilled when our scores go up, and we're always disappointed when they don't, and we always try to do something about it," he said.
Educators in other districts also said they found the CAP reports useful.
Lynn Winters, director of program evaluation and research for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, said she regularly uses CAP scores to identify possible areas of instructional weakness in the district's program. "Sometimes it's as simple as, 'Hey, we didn't get to fractions before the students took the test,' " she said.
Winters emphasized that the CAP exams are not the only test the district uses for self-evaluation. Students in the third, fifth and eighth grades also take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a standardized exam given throughout the country.
English a Problem
Linda Pursell, assistant director of research and evaluation for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said her office uses the CAP data to assess the district's instructional strengths and weaknesses.
Pursell recently prepared a report summarizing the weaknesses disclosed by the last three years of CAP scores. Among the weaknesses were reading comprehension and use of standard English--not surprising, she noted, given that English is not the first language of 37% of the district's third-graders. Pursell's report was given to the school board, which approves any changes in the district's direction.
Van Der Laan said that one consequence of the CAP test and other standardized tests in the Long Beach Unified School District was the institution several years ago of a course in test-taking.
"We found that many students were not finishing tests and not getting credit for what they knew," said Van Der Laan. Now all eighth-graders are taught how to budget their test time, how to use a machine-scored answer sheet and other ways to improve their performance on standardized tests.
But like many other educators, Van Der Laan emphasized that CAP is only one way the district assesses its performance. "You're judged by them for good or ill," he said of the CAP tests. "They are like a shadow. They can make you look shorter or taller than you are."
Van Der Laan said Long Beach, which has a growing population of students who speak limited English, is particularly encouraged to find that these students appear to do better on the CAP tests the longer they are in the district.
'Teach to a Test'
Some schools fear that too much emphasis is put on CAP scores. Judy Pirkle, who is a senior research analyst for the Los Angeles County office of education, sometimes hears teachers complain that they are being asked to "teach to a test."
Others say the issue is not a problem. As one district administrator explained, it is impossible to feed students information that will appear on the CAP test because it has so many forms. The CAP is what is called a matrix test. Each sixth-grader taking it receives one of 40 different versions of the exam, each containing 31 questions chosen from among more than 1,000 options.
Sometimes a school will do everything right and its CAP scores won't budge. In the 1985-86 school year Carmenita Junior High School in Cerritos leaped 55 points in reading. School staff attributed that gain in part to CAP-oriented sessions for teachers and "pre-rewarding" the students with a special CAP dance.
This year Carmenita slipped slightly in most categories, despite another CAP dance. The school's new principal, Linda Caillet, said she was looking forward to receiving a more detailed report on Carmenita's CAP performance from the state. "That will give us some more meat to work with."
As to the dip in school scores, Caillet was philosophical.
"That could be a dozen kids who had a bad day," she said. "A couple of your best testers can have a headache and that makes a difference for you."