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Test Scores Show Mixed Results at LEARN Schools

October 03, 1995|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Those elementary schools involved longest in a lauded reform program fared no better than other Los Angeles Unified School District campuses in standardized tests of reading, language and math, based on results released Monday.

In fact, of 29 pioneer LEARN schools that took the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills last spring--two years after embarking on reforms aimed at improving student performance by giving the schools more autonomy from the district--just slightly more than a third had improved in all three skill categories in the targeted fourth-grade.

Slightly more--12--had consistently lower fourth-grade scores than the year before and six experienced mixed results, improving in some areas but declining in others.

Those results largely reflected districtwide fourth-grade scores, where 39% of those schools tested improved, 24% declined and 36% logged mixed results.

When the district separated the 50 elementary schools that improved most in 1993-94 and last year in the three categories, only three--Topanga Elementary and two South Gate schools, Bryson Avenue and San Miguel Avenue--were LEARN schools.

Academics suggest it may be premature to judge the fledgling program on its performance and some believe that the time-worn CTBS exam may not adequately monitor skills emphasized in a reform-minded school.

"When you go into some kind of transformation, you're likely to suffer immediately when it comes to kid performance," said Robert L. Baker, associate dean of the School of Education at USC. "The CTBS is much better at looking at the general educational progress over time. It isn't intended to be sensitive enough to reflect . . . interventions in the classroom."

Still, the lukewarm results caused some critics to increase the heat to abandon the time-consuming program, which has spread to 192 schools since its 1993 inception.

"If students are not achieving, LEARN is not working," said Los Angeles school board member Barbara Boudreaux, one the reform program's harshest critics. "This is a grave situation and a signal to the public that LEARN is just window-dressing."

Mike Roos, president of the group of business, education and political leaders who began Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN, likened scrutiny of the test scores this year to pulling up seedlings to see if they are rooted.

"We have consistently said, 'Give us four to five years,' " Roos said. LEARN schools are "undoing a culture that's 70 years old, trying to create a new one, all in a milieu of being buffeted by people in the system that aren't so excited about changing."

Charter schools, which operate even more independently of district and state regulations than their LEARN counterparts, tended to fare better on the CTBS test between the two years. But even there some--like the much-celebrated Vaughn School in the San Fernando Valley--took a nose-dive.

Principals at LEARN schools that experienced a CTBS dip this year held the reform program blameless, attributing the decline to the shortcomings of the testing process and the test itself. Those whose fourth-graders scored higher in 1995 than the year before attributed the gain to LEARN.

"We have really become one family, one community, with LEARN," said Jacqueline Berz, principal at Topanga Elementary, which had the greatest improvement of all LEARN schools. "I really think that's one of the reasons we saw this kind of change in our fourth-graders."

LEARN schools remained high-achievers compared to non-LEARN fourth-graders, collectively topping district median scores in every category. In fact, two LEARN schools--gifted magnets Welby Way and Wonderland--held two of the district's top-three scoring slots in mathematics and Welby Way was second in both reading and language.

But in a clear example of the self-selection involved in many reform movements, the LEARN median is pushed higher by schools that were already testing well before they decided to enter the reform program.

Last winter, an outside review of LEARN criticized the district for moving too slowly to implement the reforms, particularly in areas of resolving disputes with district administration and fostering financial independence of schools.

Los Angeles Unified Supt. Sid Thompson said the district is working diligently to improve student performance at all schools by setting higher achievement goals each year.

This year, his goal was to raise districtwide test scores by one percentage point and teacher-training videos were circulated to better prepare students for the exam. Districtwide results show that goal was reached in most grade levels, with the stark exception of middle school, where scores dropped or stagnated in all categories.

District officials said they would renew their efforts to improve scores at all levels, with particular emphasis on the lagging middle schools.

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