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Around the San Gabriel Valley

Different measures render variety of results in judging quality of schools.

October 08, 1989|Mary R. Heffron

There are few things that arouse such civic passion as schools.

This is true not only of those people who have a direct and immediate interest in them: students, teachers and parents. It is also true of elected officials at every level, who must decide the budget and therefore the quality of schools and who often live or die politically by those decisions.

And it is true of homeowners, most of whose greatest economic asset is forever linked to the quality of the neighborhood school. If you don't believe that, take a look at the real estate listings in this or any other newspaper. Check out how many boast "T.C. schools" or "San Marino school district."

With that as a backdrop comes the release of a list of semifinalists for National Merit and National Achievement scholarships. It includes 144 students from San Gabriel Valley high schools.

Selection is based on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and a qualifying test. Last school year, 1 million high school juniors took the tests nationwide. Only 15,000 of them--half of 1% of this year's seniors--became semifinalists.

Any way you look at it, these are the best and the brightest students. And, just as when achievement test scores are released, rightly or wrongly there is the inevitable comparison among schools.

There were 10 semifinalists in ABC School so, ABC boosters say, ABC is better than PDQ School.

Not so, reply PDQ boosters. All that means is that ABC's student body is more select. That may be because it's a private school that only accepts--or can be afforded by--students at the highest socioeconomic levels.

Or it may be a public school that draws its student body from a district so expensive to live in that it effectively screens out poor families whose children tend, as a whole, not to have had the cultural advantages that lead to academic excellence.

Every generalization has its exception. It was big news last month, when 17-year-old Lupe Vasquez enrolled at Stanford University. That's because Vasquez and her family live in an Oxnard homeless shelter. Studying for honors courses in the public area of the shelter each night, Vasquez managed to graduate second in her class and was admitted, on scholarship, to one of the most expensive and selective colleges in the country.

That this girl did it is a testament to her brains, guts and determination. But how many teen-agers could overcome such odds? Most of them don't, and they become the statistics that pull the achievement test averages down in urban school systems.

Which brings up Thursday's public hearing at Pasadena High School on a proposal by a Sierra Madre group to move their town out of the Pasadena Unified School District and into Arcadia's.

Supporters of the switch point out, among other things, scores in the state achievement tests. Arcadia students regularly score in the top fourth of all schools in reading and the top 10th in math.

Nobody disputes that the Arcadia school district's scores are, down the line, better than Pasadena's.

What is in dispute is why. Is it because programs are better at Arcadia schools? Or is it because most of the student body--largely Anglo and Asian--had more going for them on the way in than did most of the 80% minority students in Pasadena?

Indeed, there are suggestions that at least part of the reason that Sierra Madre parents want out of the Pasadena district is racial. Sierra Madre is largely white and middle class. Pasadena schools aren't.

There's no doubt which side Pasadena educators come down on. Comparing schools based on "aggregate scores" such as the achievement tests is useless, they say.

Look instead to measures of individual achievement, such as Scholastic Aptitude Test scores used for college admission, they say, and compare students of like socioeconomic backgrounds.

"If you look at the SAT," says Bill Bibbiani, who is in charge of research and testing for the Pasadena district, "our kids outperformed their peers nationally, white vs. white, black vs. black, Hispanic vs. Hispanic."

An argument against aggregate scores, though, would favor considering things like the National Merit, a list of individual achievers at different schools. And there was only one National Merit semifinalist in a Pasadena public school. Arcadia, Claremont and San Marino high schools, all public, had 10 semifinalists each.

Bibbiani says the National Merit organization itself warns that the list is not a valid method for comparing schools. But he and Frances Powell, Pasadena's administrator of senior high schools, know that the comparison will be made. "Any piece of data that deals with student performance always fuels a debate," Powell says.

Like parents everywhere, those in Sierra Madre, where 3,800 voters have signed a secession petition, say they only want the best education for their children. Some children, like Lupe Vasquez, will get a good education in the most adverse circumstances. Most children need more help.

The Sierra Madre case goes to another hearing Oct. 18 in Arcadia before decisions by county and state officials and possible referendum.

What the decision-makers, and eventually all of us, have to decide, however, are the answers to these questions:

Will allowing relatively affluent suburban residents to leave spell doom for urban school systems?

Should a child's education be the subject of a noble experiment?

Is an education just in the classroom, or is it a life experience?

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