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Test Scores Reveal Math Deficiencies : School Officials Say Results Should Be a Call to Action


Westside schools made mixed grades in California's new test for elementary, middle and high school students. But they had one thing in common: Virtually all scored poorly in math.

The reading and writing scores of Westside students ran the gamut on the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) test, given for the first time last spring. Beverly Hills Unified led the pack with some of the best results in the county, while Los Angeles Unified ranked near the bottom countywide.

But math scores were uniformly disappointing. Even in Beverly Hills--overall, the best-performing of the four school districts serving the Westside--only a quarter of fourth-graders were found to understand "essential" mathematical ideas. In Los Angeles Unified, only 3% of fourth-graders demonstrated that level of math understanding.

School officials say the test results should be taken as a call to action.

"None of this is acceptable," said Mark Slavkin, who represents much of the Westside on the Los Angeles Unified school board. "We're going to have to do better."

Under the CLAS test, California students for the first time were graded against performance standards set by educators, school board members, business leaders and parents--not against each other.

Student scores were rated on a scale of one to six--six being excellent, one being the poorest. The test replaced the California Assessment Program (CAP) test, which had been administered in the state since the early 1980s.

Since the new test has been given only once, education officials have no means of comparing the scores released this week with those of previous years. Even so, educators say, the test results offer a useful measure of schools' strengths and weaknesses.

On the Westside, reading and writing scores ranged dramatically.

At Beverly Vista Elementary in Beverly Hills, for instance, 93% of the eighth-graders showed a "thoughtful understanding" of the text on the reading portion of the test, meaning they scored in the 4-to-6 range. And 91% of those students were able to score 4 or above on the writing portion, meaning their writing was "coherent, adequately organized and developed."

In Santa Monica/Malibu Unified, and at Culver City Middle School, slightly more than half of the eighth-graders scored four or above on the reading and writing tests. In Los Angeles Unified, about a quarter of the eighth-graders scored four or higher in reading and writing.

In the reading and writing test for 10th-graders, students from the Beverly Hills, Culver City and Santa Monica/Malibu Unified districts ranked in the top 20 of the 50 high school districts in Los Angeles County, while Los Angeles Unified came in 40th.

Though Beverly Hills High showed the strongest performance among Westside high schools, its reading scores were not uniformly strong. Only 40% of the school's 10th-graders demonstrated a solid understanding of the text they read. Writing, however, was another story: 75% of the 10th-grade students wrote clearly and well.

In Los Angeles Unified high schools, reading and writing scores were generally poor. At Los Angeles High School, for instance, only 5% of 10th-grade students who took the reading test scored four or higher. And on the writing test, 74% of the 10th-graders scored at or below three, meaning they "had difficulty communicating the writer's knowledge and values."

Educators offer a variety of explanations for the disparity in reading and writing results, citing factors ranging from socioeconomic differences to teacher preparation.

At Mar Vista Elementary, a Los Angeles Unified school that scored relatively well in the CLAS test, Principal Monica Friedman said the school succeeded in part because teachers revised their method of instruction in anticipation of the test.

As part of that effort, the school's fourth-grade teachers last year attended a UCLA workshop to learn how to help students develop skills needed for the new test.

The CLAS test marks a sharp break with the former multiple-choice exam, in which students tried to pick a single correct answer--or guess. Under the new test, students have to write at least some answers, respond to open-ended questions about literature, for example, or explain how they arrived at solutions to math problems.

Said Friedman: "We work hard at communication, teaching kids how to explain how they got that answer."

Los Angeles Unified officials said the district's overall reading and writing performance was hampered in part because the district has a large share of students with limited English-speaking ability--41% compared to 31% countywide.

Like the reading and writing scores, mathematics results from the CLAS test differed from district to district on the Westside. But they varied in a narrower range--from bad to worse.

Even though only 25% of Beverly Hills fourth-graders scored four or higher--showing they understood "essential" mathematical ideas--the district's fourth-grade math scores were among the best in the county.

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