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Higher SAT Scores Give L.A. Schools a Partial Victory

Education: Slight increase is district's first in four years. But despite gain, it lags even farther behind state and national averages.

August 23, 1996|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test rose for the first time in four years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the slight increase did not bring the district back to its 1991-92 level, and left it farther behind state and national averages.

Such mixed results are viewed as a partial victory in the urban district, where test takers are twice as likely as their peers statewide to come from non-English-speaking families that tend to be poorer and less well-educated.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 24, 1996 Orange County Edition Part A Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
SAT scores--An article and chart Friday about Scholastic Assessment Test results incorrectly listed a score for Kennedy High in the Anaheim Union School District. Its students scored 546 on the math exam, a 16-point increase over last year.

"What we're seeing here are the embryonic results of our reform efforts," said Ruben Zacarias, deputy superintendent of the 660-school system. "Although we're pleased that we're showing some improvement, we're not at all satisfied with the overall results."

In other Los Angeles County districts, there were also signs of high achievement. In the San Gabriel Valley's Glendora Unified School District, for example, scores topped both the state and national averages, with a 520 score in verbal and 534 in math. But in the Centinela Valley Union School District, which encompasses the communities of Hawthorne and Lawndale, the scores were 424 in verbal and 442 in math, 60 to 70 points lower than the state and national levels.

In Los Angeles Unified, the district's combined verbal and math scores were 880 points in 1995-96, up from an average of 873 the year before but still trailing the 1991-92 combined score of 890.

When broken down by school, the results were sometimes predictable. Two suburban schools landed in the top echelon, with Van Nuys High achieving the district's top scores and the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies registering the biggest improvement on the verbal portion of the test over the past five years.

Yet there were encouraging trends at some inner-city schools as well. Jordan High in South-Central Los Angeles experienced the largest five-year jump in math scores and Lincoln High just east of downtown showed the biggest one-year increase in both the math and verbal portions of the test.

At Jordan, Assistant Principal Janet Salem attributed the improvement in math scores to the phasing out of remedial classes--which the school began eliminating three years ago--and to the campus' increased emphasis on college prep courses for all students.

"The idea is you're learning in any class so you might as well be learning at a higher level," Salem said. "It's exciting to build and see some results."

Salem is the first to acknowledge that Jordan has a long way to go. The school's average combined math and verbal score of 712 is among the district's lowest and would keep many students out of competitive four-year colleges.

The chronically low standardized test scores at Jordan and other inner-city schools may reflect the large number of students who begin school speaking Spanish and struggle with English throughout high school, Salem said. But she also complained that the College Board exams do not adequately assess her students' abilities.

Statistics about those Los Angeles Unified students who took the SAT offer a glimpse of the challenges facing even the district's top students--those who have set their sights on college.

* Two-thirds of the local SAT takers started school speaking a language other than English, compared with a third statewide and less than 20% nationally.

* One out of three of the students have parents who did not graduate from high school, compared with one in 10 in California and one in 25 across the United States.

* Two-thirds of Los Angeles Unified students reported annual family earnings of less than $30,000 a year. That is more than twice the proportion of students reporting that income level nationwide, even though the cost of living is higher in Los Angeles than elsewhere in the country.

Even where test results improved, the College Board report identified some troubling areas.

At Lincoln High, where average verbal and math scores each rose 25 points, to nearly 800 points combined, the number of students taking the basic college entrance exam has decreased every year for the past five years.

"That is of great concern and . . . I want to take a closer look at it," said school board President Jeff Horton, a former high school English teacher. "I've always said the average score doesn't help a student, but taking the test might help that student."

Los Angeles exceeded the nation in the percentage of seniors taking the SAT. Nationwide, 41% of seniors took the SAT, while at the 53 Los Angeles high schools and magnet schools in the report, 43% took the 1995-96 test, a slight dip from the 44% tested five years ago.

But many campuses had greater declines, and the phenomenon was not limited to inner-city schools.

At Van Nuys High, the district's top scorer on the SAT with a combined math and verbal score of nearly 1,100 points, 10% fewer students took the test this year than the year before. Assistant Principal Sandra English was hard-pressed to say why.

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