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Oak Park Students Get an 'A' in Reading and Writing Skills : Results: District officials voice disappointment with their students' math performance.

March 09, 1994|BRENDA DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oak Park Schools Supt. Marilyn Lippiatt paused with satisfaction to note the district's top-ranked scores in reading and writing on new state tests.

Then she shifted to the math results--disappointing but still better than other schools.

"We're not satisfied with the math scores at all," Lippiatt said. "Yes, we did better than the state and the county did. But I say, look what we did in writing. Why can't we do that in math?"

The best isn't good enough for the affluent east Ventura County district, which probably--at least in part--explains consistently high test scores among its 2,500 students.

The first of the new California Learning Assessment System tests was no exception.

"We have a community that expects great things," said Medea Creek Middle School Principal Laurel Ann Ford.

Although Oak Park fourth-, eighth- and 10-graders handily outperformed their counterparts statewide and in Ventura County, Lippiatt said math scores did not meet the district's measure of quality.

Fully half of the Oak Park sophomores who took the test landed in the bottom two levels of a six-step scoring system, showing little or no understanding of basic math concepts. Medea Creek students fared better in math, with only 22% scoring in the bottom two levels.

Statewide averages, however, are positively dismal. There, 70% of high school students fell into the two lowest categories of math achievement, and 72% of eighth-graders slipped into the same area.

Part of the explanation is that the test, requiring students to work out problems and show how they arrive at answers, is a radical departure from the old multiple-choice exams, said Oak Park High School Principal Jeff Chancer.

"It's real obvious that what the state is testing for in students, as far as the ability to analyze and solve problems, is not happening in classrooms. We need to change that," Chancer said.

The results were dramatically different in writing scores for Oak Park students, with 81% of sophomores scoring in the top three levels, along with 65% of middle school students and 87% of fourth-graders.

Oak Park embarked upon many of the reforms recommended by the state several years ago to improve schools at all levels. As a result, the new test measuring students' ability to problem-solve and express themselves fell in line with what teachers are doing, Ford said.

"We measure ourselves not by what we teach, but by what students are learning," Ford said.

The middle school has for years incorporated writing into nearly every course, even math classes where students had to write how they planned to solve problems before doing the computations, she said.

Since the strategy paid off in advanced writing skills, the school's staff members will look for ways to similarly expand the teaching of math outside math classes, Ford said.

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Two years ago, Medea Creek started a math program aimed at teaching students more than memorizing complicated equations and formulas. Instead, teachers find practical applications for abstract concepts so students know what they're learning, Ford said.

"The whole idea is to make it so they can see it, so it's real tangible," said Tracy Neitz, a math teacher who trains other districts in the techniques. "So often, we give them these concepts and they have no idea why they do what they do."

The next step will be drawing math lessons into other courses, so the students can't escape seeing its everyday use, Ford said. For instance, math and gym teachers are working to develop a fun-lesson plan for teaching students about percentages by having them throw Frisbees at a target.

Oak Park parents who learned of the high Oak Park test scores seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. They said the district's teachers deserve credit for taking the lead in making creative changes.

"It's a total vindication of restructuring," said Cindy Vinson, whose eighth-grade daughter attends Medea Creek. "It's what we've been working toward for several years."

Chancer, at the high school, said restructuring efforts there have moved away from testing students and toward requiring them to demonstrate knowledge through projects and performances. Such an approach pays off in the state learning assessment tests, he said.

The point of the tests, however, isn't to establish which school is best but to show schools where they need to improve, said Mike McDermit, an Oak Park High School English teacher who scored some of the middle school tests.

"I think it can only get better," McDermit said. "If schools are pointing toward things they're going to improve, it doesn't matter where they are."

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