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Schools on the Bottom Say New Scores Reveal Little : Assessment: Teachers lament that transiency, inadequate materials and weak English skills put their children at a disadvantage.

March 09, 1994|SUSAN BYRNES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fifty-nine percent of the fourth-grade students at Van Nuys Elementary School demonstrated little or no mathematical thinking. Forty-five percent of the eighth-graders at San Fernando Middle School wrote answers to questions in a disorganized, undeveloped and vague manner. Fifty percent of the 10th-graders at Canoga Park High School read with only superficial connection between different parts of a text.

But do these numbers really tell the story? According to teachers and principals at some of the San Fernando Valley schools that fared near the bottom in the California Learning Assessment System, they reveal very little.

A test that required a slow progression toward a new way of teaching, many say, was instead introduced hastily without acknowledgment of the realities of their schools--the majority of them located in the northeast Valley, where English is a second language for many students and transiency rates sometimes reach 60%.

"This is very demeaning for the children and the teachers," said Irene Smerigan, principal of Sylmar Elementary School, which ranked near the bottom of the Valley's 131 elementary schools, according to a list compiled by The Times from combined scores in the three subjects tested. "If there was a way to take into consideration the amount of English instruction a student has had . . . but it just bulks them all together."

In its first year, the test marked a dramatic departure from previous statewide assessment tests, which focused on multiple-choice and true-or-false questions. The new test requires students to think critically, both alone and cooperatively, in reading, writing and mathematics.

Many teachers and principals at the lowest-ranking schools say they support the philosophy behind the new test. But they warn that at their schools it will take years to retrain teachers and restructure classes before the scores improve.

Many cite language barriers, a lack of adequate educational materials and the inability to offer consistent teaching to transient students as obstacles to be overcome before their students fare better.

"The testing was a very stressful situation for me," said Sarah Komen, a fourth- and fifth-grade math teacher at Langdon Avenue Elementary School in North Hills, which ranked near the bottom. "Kids are not used to doing things this way."

Komen said that implementing the new curriculum necessary to prepare for the test in her classroom--where textbooks date back to the 1970s and only about five children are fully proficient in English--will be a tremendous challenge.

"We're dealing with some kids whose ability is very, very low. A number of kids don't even have subtraction down, let alone multiplication tables," she said.

All regular students who have been in the country at least 30 months, except those who take their core courses in a language other than English, are required to take the test. But for students who made the transition into English classes just before the test--as many do in the third and fourth grades--teachers say the level of comprehension expected is unrealistic.

"In my school, 98% of the students are being tested in their second language," said Diane Pritchard, principal of Montague Street Elementary School in Pacoima. "This is a very sophisticated test. If we could give it at the sixth-grade level, when they leave, the scores would be different."

The state is developing a Spanish version of the CLAS that it will field-test before implementation.

While admitting disappointment in their children's scores, many principals approached the results with reserved optimism, vowing to emphasize teacher training and class restructuring in order to improve.

"This is the very first year of a very different test," said Linda Ambro, principal of Sylmar High School. "It tells me that everyone needs to get on the ball."

"It's a big challenge," said Langdon Principal Dan Balderrama. "But we're taking baby steps. That's the best we can do at this point. If I can get half a percent improvement per year over five years, that's something."

But many teachers believe the test came too soon, before they had a chance to change their curriculum to better prepare students.

"I really don't think making such a dramatic change should even be evaluated for the first three years," said Renee Wells, who teaches fourth grade at Sylmar Elementary. "It's like giving a test to someone in advanced applied physics who doesn't know any advanced applied physics. It's demoralizing for the teachers."

Wells, who administered the test to her students last year, said she had three children in her class who did not read at all. "They were expected to read and write logically, and their scores were lumped in. It's disheartening that politicians and the public take these scores as the measure of a school. They're not an accurate measure."

Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, said teachers have reason to be frustrated. "It's a good test and a good curriculum," Bernstein said. "Somebody just forgot to match the two."

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