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New Tactic Appears to Pay Off in Test Scores : Education: School districts that revised lessons to emphasize language arts and logic do comparatively well in new state exams.


San Gabriel Valley school districts that have aggressively revamped lessons to reflect a new language arts and math curriculum generally scored higher than their neighbors on the new California Learning Assessment System standardized tests. The results were released Wednesday.

For instance, Walnut High School, which had the highest percentage of students in all of Los Angeles County who earned a top score of 6 in math, said it recently overhauled its math curriculum to emphasize the logical steps necessary to solve problems.

"Our math teachers spent a Saturday on their own time designing open-ended questions for math so the students aren't just regurgitating information, but demonstrating that they can think through the process," Principal Ken Gunn said.

At Armstrong Elementary School in the Pomona Unified district, where 42% of students scored 4 or above in reading, Principal Eugene Domeno said teachers studied sample test questions provided by the state, then adapted teaching methods to reflect the skills measured by the new tests.

Though state officials said they were disappointed with overall scores--which for the first time measure students against performance standards instead of against each other--they note that districts that traditionally score well on standardized tests are still topping the charts in the new CLAS tests.

In the San Gabriel Valley, schools in San Marino, Arcadia, La Canada, South Pasadena, Temple City and Walnut consistently scored high in reading, writing and math. Pomona schools scored near the bottom.

The CLAS tests were administered last spring to selected fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders.

Many individual schools that have historically done well--even if they are in districts with otherwise lackluster scores--continued that record. All three elementary schools in the upper-middle-class Diamond Bar area of the Pomona Unified district scored high. At Brightwood School in Monterey Park, a middle-income, multicultural school where scores in the standardized tests the state formerly used shot up 46% in 10 years, fourth-graders ranked third in reading in Los Angeles County this year.

"Our teaching is in line with the framework, and CLAS tests the framework," said Grace Love, Brightwood's principal.

But the new tests also show the difficulties of trying to draw conclusions based on raw data from one year of testing, and on samples that can vary from 11 students per test group to thousands.

For instance, South Pasadena Unified was fourth in Los Angeles County in math, fifth in reading, and ninth in writing. Anita Thompson, the district's assistant superintendent for instructional services, credits the scores to her district's embrace of literature-based learning, which applies even to math.

But South Pasadena Continuation High School students scored at the very bottom of all Los Angeles County 10th-graders in writing. Few of them were able to communicate in a clear, adequately organized way, according to the test standards, and the majority wrote incoherently and made errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.

South Pasadena officials say they are reluctant to draw conclusions about the dismal showing of their continuation students because only 11 took the test.

In addition to providing raw numbers, the CLAS tests allow a district to gauge how it performed against 100 school districts with similar income and educational levels.

For instance, Duarte Unified had a relatively poor academic performance overall, but ranked high against 100 comparable districts. In reading, 39% of the students scored 4 or above, while the figure for comparable districts was only 22%.

Pomona schools scored near the bottom overall, but district officials say that is not surprising in a comparison with schools in Beverly Hills or La Canada. When measured against similar districts, Pomona looks much better.

In fourth grade, for instance, about half the Pomona schools outperformed their comparison schools, said Jill Fulton, coordinator of curriculum instruction and staff development. In middle school, about half performed better or as well as their socioeconomic peers in reading and writing.

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