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Central Schools Fare Poorly in Tests : Education: Low scores in statewide exams are blamed in part on the poverty and limited English proficiency of many students.

March 13, 1994|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At every grade level and in every subject, students at most Central Los Angeles schools scored poorly on a new state exam designed to test critical thinking skills, according to results released last week.

Although some area schools did better than comparable schools on the California Learning Assessment Systems test, they were the exception.

Educators believe the low scores in Central Los Angeles are largely reflective of the area's high concentration of students who are poor, highly mobile, speak little English and have parents who do not get involved in schools.

"The majority of students in my area are poor, from other countries and speak English as a second language. Even those who qualified to take the test--many of them are not fluent in English," said Evangelina Stockwell, assistant superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Elementary District B, which includes the Mid-City area, Downtown and parts of the Eastside.

"But our kids are just going to have to work harder. We start behind (in) the race already, but we're going to have to catch up."

Unlike the previous California Assessment Program exam, which graded on a curve and set minimum expectation levels, results of the new test were graded according to rigorous performance standards established by a task force of educators, parents and others. The test was scored on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the highest score.

The CLAS test, which included mathematics, reading and writing sections, was administered last spring to 1 million California students in grades four, eight and 10. Students who have attended schools in this country for less than 30 months or who have been enrolled in classes taught primarily in their native languages were exempted from the exam.

Though the previous exam required students to answer multiple-choice questions, students taking the CLAS test were asked to analyze their answers, critique literature and show how they arrived at solutions to math problems. The new format is intended to raise student achievement by forcing schools to meet high standards set by the state.

"The kids were exhausted after the test," said Judy Foon, a fourth-grade teacher at Solano Avenue Elementary near Chinatown. "This test requires them to do more critical thinking, so we've been getting geared for the new format."

Foon said teachers have been using cooperative learning techniques, which combine various subjects into the same lesson. For instance, students could be asked to write an essay about science or explain a math problem in essay form.

The school's efforts appear to have paid off. In every subject, Solano students surpassed the scores of the 100 schools to which it was compared by the state. The state grouped similar schools according to socioeconomic factors, student mobility and the percentage of students not proficient in English.

"Compared to other schools, we did well," Foon said. "But we still have room to improve--to raise the achievement of students who didn't do well. It'll be a challenge."

Although Los Angeles school officials expected scores to be somewhat low since it was the first time the exam was administered, they were concerned that--based on the results--so many students appear to lack basic reading, writing and math skills.

Central Los Angeles students particularly had trouble on the math portion of the exam. At least 90% of the fourth-graders at 88 of 158 elementary schools in Central Los Angeles scored a 1 or a 2 on the math section, demonstrating little or no understanding of math concepts.

Older students also posted dismal math scores. At least 90% of the eighth-graders at 22 of 29 middle schools and 15 of the 27 high schools in Central Los Angeles scored 1 or 2 in math.

Poor math scores were not limited to inner-city schools. More than 80% of the students throughout the district posted math scores of 1 or 2.

Despite the low scores throughout Central Los Angeles, there were a few bright spots. For instance, Third Street School in Hancock Park posted among the top math scores in the district. Although only 2% of the students at similar schools scored a 6 or 5 on the math portion, 13% of the students at Third Street demonstrated full understanding of mathematical concepts.

The school--which is 55% Asian, 15% Latino, 9% African American and 20% white--also surpassed the scores at similar schools in reading and writing.

"We feel very proud of our school," said Principal Suzie Oh. "We're already introducing pre-algebra and geometry in elementary school."

Students throughout the area tended to do somewhat better in reading and writing, but most Central Los Angeles schools still received low scores when compared with other schools in the county.

Even when matched with comparable schools, schools in Central Los Angeles did not fare well. The scores at nearly every area middle and high school were lower than those at similar schools. Most elementaries' scores also were lower.

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