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Amid Controversy, ABC District Shines in State Test Results : Education: Despite wrangling among teachers, board and administration, students placed highest overall in Southeast area.

March 10, 1994|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The school board feuds, the teachers and administration fuss, and the superintendent is on the outs, but something has gone right in ABC Unified: The school district earned high marks on the state's new student achievement tests.

Among the 18 Southeast-area school systems, ABC Unified had the best or near-best scores in every category and at every grade level tested by the exam. The district also did better, on average, when compared with similar school systems across the state.

The test was given last spring for the first time, and the state released the results Wednesday. The California Learning Assessment System, CLAS for short, is California's latest attempt to measure how well students know what they really need to know.

In part, the results reinforced what previous tests had concluded. ABC Unified and the tiny Lowell Joint School District, a Whittier-area elementary school system, did well, as they have on more traditional standardized tests. The scores in Lynwood Unified and Compton Unified remained low.

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Long Beach Unified landed in the middle of the pack, a showing that Long Beach school officials called respectable. Downey officials were puzzled over results that were better than expected in some areas and worse than anticipated in others. Students in the Whittier Union High School District earned mid-range scores, and Paramount Unified had low scores, but students in both school systems performed on a par with similar students elsewhere.

For ABC Unified, the test scores offered a respite from headlines about district squabbling and labor strife. For two years, the administration and the teachers union have battled over salaries, class sizes and other issues. The district of 21,000 students serves Cerritos, Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens and parts of Lakewood and Norwalk.

Employees called Supt. Larry L. Lucas autocratic and said morale was at an all-time low. District administrators accused teachers of making unreasonable demands, politicizing their classrooms and involving students in labor disputes. Meanwhile, the divided school board would bicker publicly for hours over issues large and small.

And in the midst of it all, students took the new state test and did themselves proud.

The results were particularly strong on the eighth-grade writing test, where 66% of ABC Unified students scored 4 or better on the 6-point grading scale; 5% of the students earned a 6, the top score. In Los Angeles County, only Beverly Hills Unified had a higher percentage of students with the top score.

"I'm not surprised we did well," said Deputy Supt. Ira Toibin. "We had been working on modifying our system in anticipation of the change. We began to work hard to change our curriculum." The new test "requires a whole different approach in terms of writing and math."

Traditional standardized tests had relied on banks of multiple-choice questions. The new test used more open-ended questions, some of which required essay responses. Students had to write essay answers even to math questions. Unlike in past tests, students were allowed to use calculators. And some tasks required students to work together.

Students in grades four, eight and 10 took tests in reading, writing and mathematics. The test measured students against rigorous statewide performance standards set by educators, school board members, business leaders and parents.

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Virtually all Southeast school systems had considerable room for improvement, particularly in mathematics, where scores were the worst.

The 10th-grade math scores in ABC, for example, were among the best in the county, but only 19% of ABC students demonstrated higher-level math skills by scoring a 4 or better. In Long Beach Unified, only 7% of 10th-graders scored a 4 or better in math, yet that was better than eight of the Southeast area's 12 high school districts.

"We have learned that our emphasis needs to change to include more writing in mathematics," said Long Beach Assistant Supt. Lew Prilliman. "I am sure that's what pulled our scores down."

Overall, Prilliman said, he was pleased by the scores in Long Beach Unified, a district of 77,000 students. The scores were as good or slightly better than scores of similar students elsewhere in all but a few categories.

ABC Unified prepared for the test by taking some teachers out of the classroom and assigning them to revise what would be taught in the classroom, officials said.

"The key now is not to tell students so much up front, but to cause them, through exploration, to come to a fuller understanding of what math is," Toibin said.

In one second-grade class, for example, a group of students received a long sheet of cardboard. The teacher told students to stand the cardboard on its end and to cut three small circles. The holes had to be just large enough for a student to put his or her head through. And the circles had to be positioned so that each student could do this without stooping or stretching.

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