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 had 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 any one classroom. Educators believe they are useful in assessing a school's or a school 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, whereas 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.
Administrators in the Pasadena Unified School District said they are heartened by the surge in almost all their scores.
"That's not simply a fluke," said Bill Bibbiani, director of research and testing for the district. "We've been modifying our curriculum for several years. I think that's beginning to pay off."
Michael Klentschy, Pasadena Unified's administrator of elementary and middle-school instruction, said that last year the district had deliberately started bringing its curriculum into better alignment with state standards. The district's CAP scores, he said, "gave us direction."
Klentschy said that teachers and administrators from throughout the district formed committees to improve instruction in mathematics and language arts. At the middle-school level, groups of social-science and science teachers began meeting regularly. Before these steps were taken, Klentschy said, the district had "been working hard but we weren't working smart."
Teachers' Key Role
The teachers' involvement in the improvement program was the key to its success, Klentschy said. "We don't really feel we are where we want to be, but we've turned the corner," he said. "We're on the right street."
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.
She recalled that one year the state's CAP scores report showed that students in the district's continuation high school had done much better than students in regular high schools on a math problem item asking them to determine how much wallpaper was needed to cover a certain area. Winters said that single piece of information prompted the district to ask whether it was giving enough attention to applied math, as opposed to theoretical math, in the regular high school program.
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.
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 revealed by the last three years of CAP scores. Among those 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.
Richard 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."