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Top Schools Level Off Under New Tests : Education: Typically high-achieving Valley campuses fare near the state average but still outpace LAUSD counterparts.


San Fernando Valley schools that typically score high on standardized tests fared only about average on the new, highly touted California Learning Assessment System--a series of tests designed to measure students' skills in reading, writing and math.

The scores, released today, show high-achieving Valley schools still outpacing many other campuses within the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the Valley schools did not make it to the top when measured against tough, new statewide performance standards.

Given last spring to students in grades four, eight and 10, the tests are a new way to measure students' and schools' abilities in the three subject areas. The tests were developed--and scored--by teachers after 1991 legislation mandated a new assessment system.

But even schools that have implemented a more rigorous curriculum and whose teachers already have altered their instruction methods are not scoring at the top levels. The performance standards range, for example, from students showing little or no ability in math to an in-depth understanding of math concepts.

At Carpenter Avenue Elementary in Studio City, which typically scores at the top of statewide tests, more than half of the fourth-graders scored in the lowest two levels in math. At Lawrence Middle School in Woodland Hills, more than half of the eighth-graders scored in the lowest three levels in reading, showing only general and superficial understanding of the texts. At El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills, almost one-third of the 10th-graders showed little or no understanding of math concepts.

While many principals and teachers say they are not surprised by the results, they say students did not receive top marks for a variety of reasons. They say the test is much different than any other and that many teachers haven't adjusted their styles and methods for introducing new material.

As much a measure of students' knowledge, the tests also are a measure of how well the state-suggested curriculum is implemented in individual schools. Teachers are being encouraged to let students work cooperatively and to read literature rather than textbooks. Team-teaching is urged as well as giving students writing assignments in all subject areas--not just in English classes.

"As I walk through classrooms, you don't need a test score to tell you that teaching hasn't changed that much," said Assistant Superintendent Sally Coughlin, who oversees the Valley elementary schools. "The process is going to take longer than I wish it would. We haven't provided the time for training. We haven't provided the money for training. It was a shock to many teachers to see that test last year."

The test in itself is a learning process. The students get credit as much for a right answer as for their work in figuring out the result. In the writing portion, students can discuss their ideas before writing essays, and in math, students can use calculators to compute answers.

Carole Rosen-Kaplan, an English teacher at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, said she balked when she first saw the test. "I thought that these kids would never be able to do it--that the whole thing was unrealistic," she said. "But it was a mind-boggling experience for me. I was just shocked at how well they went to work. You could have blown me away."

Almost half of the Birmingham 10th-graders scored in the top three levels of the writing test.

As a result, Rosen-Kaplan said she has changed the way she conducts her classes and that she believes her students will begin to score higher in the coming years. But large class sizes often inhibit teachers from presenting material differently.

"We have 40 kids in ninth- and 10th-grade classes," she said. "They should be writing all the time, but there's not the individual attention. The optimum would be 20."

At Pacoima Elementary, where 61% of the students showed almost no understanding of math, Principal Larry Gonzales said the scores are "pitiful."

"I'm absolutely and tremendously disgusted," Gonzales said. "I find it deplorable, and I'm not willing to sit back and look for excuses."

Gonzales said he wants all the teachers--not just those who teach fourth grade--to become more familiar with the test and the state curriculum guidelines. "It's time to put up or shut up," he said. "At this school, the task is enormous. I'm almost exhausted by the thought of all the work that needs to be done."

By contrast, Topanga Elementary Principal Steve Friedman said his campus already has changed its approach to learning. Teachers already are working together, math students already work with calculators and in groups and writing is stressed throughout the grade levels.

"We do a lot of teaching that lends itself to this kind of test," Friedman said, adding that the school gave the test to students two years ago as part of a pilot project. "It made the teachers realize that this is a whole different ballgame in terms of testing."

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