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Statewide Tests Take the 'Temperatures' of Schools and Districts

November 08, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Third-, sixth- and eighth-graders took the California Assessment Program (CAP) test this spring. But it was their schools that got report cards: detailed summaries from the Department of Education of how each school fared in teaching reading, writing, math and other 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.

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.

English a Problem

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.

One of the ways CAP scores are used in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is in evaluating principals. District administrators meet with each principal to discuss the school's performance on the tests. Those discussions are incorporated into the statement of goals and objectives that each principal prepares for the superintendent. The principal's performance is ultimately judged against this statement.

'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."

"There is some concern that things that are chosen to be tested become the curriculum," she said. "You would want it to be the other way around."

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."

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