Moorpark school officials said Tuesday that they were heartened that test results showed the district performing mostly above average in reading and writing in all grades.

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But the schools were typical of many throughout the state whose scores dropped dramatically when the California Learning Assessment System tests turned to mathematical questions, and Moorpark officials expressed dismay that their 10th-graders posted abysmal scores in math.

"We need to take a real hard look at what we're doing in math in Moorpark," said Frank DePasquale, the district's assistant superintendent for instruction. "We will continue to do the good job we're doing in reading and writing, and we need to refocus now on math."

While Moorpark's fourth- and eighth-graders scored above and just below comparative districts in math, respectively, 10th-graders did far worse than students in similar districts. They only narrowly avoided a last-place finish among Ventura County districts, edging out schools in Santa Paula and Fillmore.

Marlene Dean, chairwoman of the high school math department, attributed the low scores to the fact that older students were less accustomed to taking the subjective math tests--which ask students to not only get the right answer, but to explain how they arrived at it.

"I think you're talking about basically the student going through the system and how long they've been taught traditional methods versus how long they've been in this newer form of math," Dean said. "We have probably only had these types of questions in our curriculum for two years."

Kendell Swenson, an 11th-grader who took the CLAS test last year as a sophomore, agreed.

"We'd never seen questions like this before," she said. "I'd say 95% of my class didn't take it seriously at all. We're used to getting a question like, 'What is 500 times 2,' and computing it and writing it on the paper. This forces you to analyze it and explain how you get each answer. We weren't used to that and we didn't want to take it seriously, for whatever reason."

Now, Moorpark school officials say they will take the information generated by the test and refocus their attention on mathematics and better preparing students for the explanatory questions they will face.

"We have a challenge," DePasquale said. "And we have to rise to that challenge."

One of the ways that the district hopes to improve its math performance, he said, is through establishment this year of a curricular council that assigns certain administrators to specific academic areas.

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Even before the test results were released, high school Principal Cary Dritz had been asked to work on the math program at both his school and Chaparral Middle School. Dritz has already met with teachers at both sites to discuss new approaches.

DePasquale said the district may also consider other ways to bolster the program, including assigning mentor teachers for math classes.

"What I'm seeing here is perhaps the need for some math mentors," he said. "(A mentor is) a classroom teacher who we pay an additional $4,000 a year to work with other teachers in specific curriculum areas."

According to test results, only 3% of Moorpark 10th-graders finished with a score of 6, 5 or 4 on the math portion of the CLAS test--the three highest possible scores, while 76% were awarded only a 1 or 2.

A compilation of other districts around the state with similar demographics showed that 12% of the students in those schools wound up with one of the top three scores and 66% with a 1 or 2.

Delores Allen, the district's coordinator of special education, guidance and testing, is scheduled to give the school board a full report on the test results in two weeks.

Given the newness of the test, Allen cautioned against putting too much weight on the data.

"It's the first time the test has been given," she said. "So you look at it very cautiously and you weigh the results very carefully."

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Still, board member Tom Baldwin said he was concerned by the low math scores and would push for more intense instruction in math fundamentals at lower grade levels.

"As a former math teacher myself, I've found that the single most important thing that an elementary teacher can do to lay the groundwork for middle school and high school math is to teach the kids their basic math facts; that has to be done," said Baldwin, who taught math in Arkansas and Maryland in the early 1970s.

"When I see low math scores, my gut feeling is it's kids who never learned their basic math."

And while some students and teachers attribute the low scores more to the new testing styles than shaky fundamentals, DePasquale agreed that the district has to put more emphasis on math education in response to the poor performance.

"I think we have to look at the facts and accept them, which is that we have a math program that needs to be looked into," he said. "Because compared to the county and the state, we did not do as well as we would have liked to have done, and I want to find out why that happened."