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O.C. High Schools Get Top Marks From State

April 23, 1997|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the latest report card on California education, Orange County public high school students outperformed almost all of their counterparts statewide and showed steady improvements in key academic areas that help prepare students for college.

Compared with other counties, Orange County had the highest percentage of juniors and seniors who scored high enough on Advanced Placement courses to earn college credits. That's a jump from last year's second place.

The county's high schools also placed fourth in the state on the Scholastic Assessment Tests (SAT) used by most colleges for admissions, and bested the statewide average on placing their students in the prestigious University of California schools.

The 1995-96 California High School Performance Report, compiled by the state Department of Education and released publicly today, compares how high schools fare on standardized tests generally taken by college-bound students, as well as the demographics and dropout rates of their student bodies.

"The report gives us a statewide perspective," County Supt. John F. Dean said. "It gives us firm knowledge that these are good comparisons and Orange County is coming on very strong."

But a number of school administrators cautioned that the rankings do not reveal how well our high school students are learning the basic curriculum.

"The state ought to be spending its time and energy on developing tests that are matched to the high school courses that are taught," said Mac Bernd, superintendent of Newport-Mesa Unified District. "Not everybody takes the SAT. And the SAT doesn't really relate to any particular course in high school."

Overall, the figures show slight increases in the number of Orange County students tackling college-level courses, graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary educations in both two- or four-year colleges.

About 89% of Orange County's high school students are expected to complete their studies and graduate--6% more than the state average--the report showed. And more Orange County students are scoring higher than the national average on the SAT (1% more) and are earning college credit on AP tests (3.3% more).

There was also an increase in the number of county high school students entering four-year colleges. About 10% of Orange County's students win admission to UC schools, outpacing the state's 7%.

Patrick Callan, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, a San Jose think tank, said the higher test scores don't reflect the fact that more students are having trouble with basic education skills. "It's a perplexing thing," Callan said.

"More kids are graduating, taking more college prep courses," Callan said, "but still colleges are having a remediation problem"--meaning they are having to take remedial math and language courses before they can tackle some college courses.

The Cal State system, for example, recently reported that more than half of its entering freshman were unprepared for college-level math and 43% lacked the skills to handle college English courses.

Educators cannot explain the phenomenon, but said California secondary schools are far from achieving their goals.

"We still have to do much more to prepare our students for the 21st century," said State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. "The gains we are seeing are not enough."

Because the state currently lacks a standardized test to measure student achievement and develop high school standards, the annual performance report only offers a snapshot of how some students are faring.

"We don't have a test that says this is what our kids know," Callan added. "Instead we use proxies and indicators in the absence of any real assessment tools. But they are not good enough."

Until such a testing system is in place, high-achieving districts such as Newport-Mesa, Fullerton and Irvine continue to post the most impressive records.

In Newport-Mesa Unified, 64% of its Corona del Mar High students scored better than the national average on the SAT. Irvine's University High had the highest average SAT score with 1177. Also, 81% of its students scored a passing 3 or better on AP tests.

At Sunny Hills High, 76% of its students--the highest percentage countywide--were enrolled in courses required by the UC and Cal State systems for admission. That's far above the state average of 35%.

"How we compare to the state and county is important, but what's more important is how we compare to ourselves," Fullerton Joint Union High School District Assistant Supt. Ken Stichter said.

Even in districts with low tests scores, students showed progress in a number of categories. At Santa Ana Unified, for instance, 9% more students entered community college last year.

"When it becomes more costly to go to a four-year school, our students see their local community college as very available to them," said Chris Rice, Santa Ana Unified's director of high school and alternative education.

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