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CLAS Scores Provide a Look at What Works : Programs at Sepulveda Shine; Northridge's Need Retooling

March 20, 1994

We've all had time to regain our composure after the release of the California Learning Assessment System results. Among other things, the new and rigorous state tests showed that students at the best public school districts too often showed only "limited mathematical thinking" abilities. That was also true for a staggering 80% of the pupils in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and for one-third of all students statewide.

But what should happen now? The switchboards are already busy at private schools around the Valley. Undoubtedly, another series of meetings by those who are most emphatic about breaking up the LAUSD into smaller districts is in the works.

We think that these energies would be best spent on a different kind of examination. Simply put, the CLAS results represent an excellent opportunity to study the individual academic programs and philosophies offered by each school. It's a chance to duplicate those that have been successful or at least appear to be on the right track. It's another chance to retool or scuttle those programs that clearly seem to be headed in the wrong direction.

One of those that clearly seemed to have gone awry last year involved the Northridge Middle School. It was a campus at which high academic standards and tough grading were discouraged and believed to be damaging to a large and growing segment of minority students. Classroom order and deportment was not important. High self esteem among students was a primary goal, even if that did not appear to be backed up by the most common academic standards.

Well, the California Learning Assessment System results served as yet another indication of the fact that changes are in order at Northridge. That is particularly important now, as the school struggles to recover a semblance of normalcy just two months after the Northridge quake. Its eighth-grade students, who took the exams long before the temblor and its aftershocks, fell woefully short of even the LAUSD's lousy showing in reading, writing and math. Most telling was the fact that the Northridge Middle School results were also far behind those at the 100 schools judged to be more comparable to it in terms of student demographics and socioeconomic status.

By contrast, the expectations for student performance are high at the Sepulveda Middle School in North Hills, according to Times reporter Beth Shuster. It's a place where a noisy classroom more often means that students are fully engaged, such as in the science class where students are using Slinky toys to learn about earthquake waves.

At Sepulveda, officials believe a more rigorous curriculum will result in progressively higher test scores, as long as it is combined with hands-on learning, team teaching and other new approaches to learning.

On the California Learning Assessment System, which measures students against highly challenging state standards, Sepulveda Middle School faired much better than most. Its eighth-grade students clearly outshined their state and LAUSD counterparts in reading and math, and trailed them only on the writing section of the test. About one-third of Sepulveda's school's students attend its gifted/high ability magnet program. Its overall score was significantly higher than those of the 100 schools with similar programs and student characteristics.

To make even more improvements, a school leadership committee has already agreed to pay for additional teacher training by professors at UCLA, and Sepulveda instructors are also giving students more reading and writing assignments.

The school's efforts to date provide some clues as to the kind of changes that will be required at many LAUSD campuses. That is the context in which an otherwise gloomy tale of low test scores should be viewed.

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