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EDUCATION

Score Gains Seen Under Reform Programs

L.A. Unified's charter schools and LEARN campuses showed the most improvement on standardized tests. But experts caution that it is too soon to draw firm conclusions.

November 04, 1998|DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Los Angeles schools that have embraced reform showed greater improvement on standardized tests than schools that were not in a reform plan, a Times analysis has found.

A computer comparison of test scores in 1997 and 1998 shows that the district's semiautonomous charter schools improved the most, followed by schools in the LEARN reform movement.

Overall, the Los Angeles Unified School District gained 2 percentile points, keeping pace with Supt. Ruben Zacarias' goal of gaining 8 points in four years.

However, a breakdown of those gains by school type shows that schools without any reform plan--about half the district's schools--gained only a single point on average.

The district's 14 charter schools, which are largely exempt from district supervision, gained 4 percentile points on average, according to the analysis.

The 284 regular schools that belong to LEARN, a business-supported plan that promotes local decision-making, improved 2 percentile points on average.

Testing experts caution that the one-year gains of charter and LEARN schools cannot be interpreted as dramatic evidence of the success of their reform efforts. Only steady gains over several years would support such a conclusion. A long-term comparison is not currently possible because the district changed its standardized test in 1997, switching from the California Test of Basic Skills to Harcourt-Brace's Stanford 9.

Still, the 2-point gain for LEARN schools offers a promising sign.

"The difference for LEARN schools, although not great, is encouraging in that if we really put our minds to it and engage in school-based reform, it may improve learning," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of public policy and education at UC Berkeley.

The finding is timely, as Zacarias required schools by Friday to select a reform plan. Besides charter and LEARN, schools could adopt school-based management, the district's earliest reform model, design their own plan or join a federal school reform research project.

Of 377 schools required to choose a reform plan, 165 selected school-based management, 44 selected LEARN and only two decided to become charter schools, said Judy Burton, assistant superintendent for school reform. An additional 91 choose to design their own plan and 41 to seek the federal reform grant, Burton said. Eleven schools decided to adopt two reform models at once and the remainder had not made a choice by the deadline, she said.

All the plans share the characteristics that Zacarias described as the essence of reform: local decision-making and budgetary power, collaboration between parents, teachers and administrators and a plan for measurable student goals.

Prior studies of LEARN and charter school scores had shown that their students were performing better than those in schools without reform.

These findings were questioned by experts such as Fuller, however, who said they could be interpreted to show only that the reform plan schools had brighter students. In the case of charter schools, the argument was that the schools attracted parents who were well-educated and took a more active interest in their children's educations. LEARN was criticized for skimming off the best schools whose teachers and parents were well-organized and motivated.

The Times analysis, using two years of the district's Stanford 9 and Spanish-language tests called Aprenda, provides the first look at whether schools engaged in reform are improving their performance over time.

Clearly LEARN schools taken together are improving more than schools that are not in a reform plan. Also, the first two LEARN phases--schools that entered the reform process in 1993 and 1994--improved less than the third-phase schools which entered in 1995.

Schools that joined LEARN in 1996 and 1997 made smaller gains, but still greater than non-reform schools.

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The district's highest-scoring schools were its magnets, which are designed to attract either high-achieving students or those interested in a particular field, such as science or performing arts. Some magnets are LEARN or charter schools and others are not. Overall, even though their scores were above the 60th percentile, magnets improved less than either LEARN or charter schools.

Acknowledging that the numbers do not constitute a "slam dunk," LEARN President Mike Roos said he believes they provide a signal that substantial new investments in reform plans are merited.

"I think that it's wildly interesting, provocative and hopefully sets up what can we learn from charter, what can we learn from LEARN," Roos said. "It only reinforces what we already know, which is if you change the governance, if you change the learning culture . . . you will change outcomes," Roos said.

Although it is not so readily apparent, the analysis also shows gains by the 100 schools that received extra funds and special attention from Zacarias last year after being identified as the lowest-performing on 1996 standardized tests.

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