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California and the West

9th-Grade Dip on Tests Baffles Educators

Reading: Experts are trying to determine whether steep slide is because of flaws in the exam or is the result of teenage angst.

July 02, 1999|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Amid the generally robust Stanford 9 scores reported by the high-achieving public schools in Manhattan Beach, one result is counterintuitive: a 20 percentile point plunge between eighth and ninth grades.

"I've been discussing this all day by phone with other superintendents in the South Bay," said Jerry Davis, who heads the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. "We're brainstorming strategies to do a better job getting our kids ready for ninth grade."

In both years of Stanford 9 testing, statewide reading scores have taken a nose dive in the first year of high school.

Other states using the exam, including Arizona and Alabama, have noticed what is being labeled the "ninth-grade dip" in reading. The pattern does not occur in math, where scores have tended to rise slightly over those of eighth-graders.

Puzzled education officials and teachers are scratching their heads over why reading skills seem to fall off the cliff in ninth grade, dropping 10 to 14 percentile points across the state, said Gerry Shelton, who directs testing programs for the California Department of Education. Ninth-graders statewide scored at the 34th percentile in reading in both 1998 and 1999. (The 50th percentile marks the national median.)

Theories abound among education officials, testing experts and teachers. They range from a lack of motivation on students' part to the difficulties of making the transition to high school. Some blame the fact that students have moved well beyond the formal reading instruction of elementary school, which has gotten more attention and resources of late in California and other reform-minded states.

Joanne M. Lenke, president of test publisher Harcourt Educational Measurement, theorized in a telephone news conference Wednesday that it might have something to do with the steep rise in ninth-grade enrollment in California schools--an unusual pattern that could indicate the presence of students who are new to the region or who have been held back.

None of those ideas makes much sense to Shelton. He and others contend that the blame must lie somehow with the test questions or with the norming sample of ninth-graders put together by Harcourt. Such steep drops did not occur in previous statewide exams.

"This year's ninth-graders were last year's eighth-graders," he said. It would seem odd, he added, that "last year they were high achievers, and this year they're dumb."

Samples from Harcourt posted on the California Department of Education Web site, www.cde.ca.gov, show similar testing formats for eighth- and ninth-graders. Each poses questions about a narrative that can be understood without knowledge of literature or history. But the sentence structures and vocabulary are much more complicated at the ninth-grade level, and the questions require more attention to detail.

Whatever is behind the phenomenon, the plunge is prompting some school districts to devise programs to bolster reading skills in upper grades.

Manhattan Beach has launched a summertime prep program for reading and math, geared to incoming ninth-graders "who don't feel confident," Davis said. He also is consulting with schools in Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Lawndale and other communities that feed students into Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, in the hope that they can develop supplemental programs too.

Manhattan Beach plans to teach "reading attack skills" to teachers of social studies, science, history and other subjects so that they can coach students struggling with biology or other textbooks.

Davis regrets that action because he realizes it could distract teachers from their core subjects. But he views it as necessary.

"We need to do a better job of teaching reading across the curriculum," he said.

He acknowledged that he would be frustrated if his district went to all this expense and trouble and it was later discovered that Harcourt had bungled the norming sample or created questions beyond most ninth-graders' abilities.

The state's new mandate to reduce the size of ninth-grade English classes is allowing teachers to give more attention to struggling readers.

Steve Klein, an English teacher at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, said the drop to 20 students in the spring semester--from 35 or so previously--gave him more time for one-on-one reading instruction. He instituted a silent reading session for students, letting them choose from a motley collection of books he had accumulated at yard sales and thrift stores.

"I've seen their concentration and their attention span and writing improve," he said.

Still, he sees merit in the argument that some of the drop-off can be explained by the normal effects of hormones, pimples, dating and other aspects of social and physical development.

"In ninth grade, they go a little meshuggena," Klein said, using the Yiddish term for "crazy." Apathy can be a problem too.

The dip has perplexed Beverly Huff, Irvine's coordinator of assessment and special projects, for two years now. Her district's high-achieving students this year earned scores in the 70th percentile throughout elementary and middle school, only to skid 10 points in the freshman year.

"It could be one of two things," she said. "It's a very remote possibility that the norm sample at that grade is not truly indicative of the national population. . . . Or, indeed, the entire state is performing at a lower level than the national group."

Why California students--and students in Arizona and Alabama--would be so different from peers in Harcourt's national norm sample is unclear.

"We're comparing ourselves to a national group that we basically bought into," said Kelly Powell, director of school and student accountability for the Arizona Department of Education. "The real question is how representative is the norm group."

*

Times staff writer Kate Folmar in Orange County contributed to this story.

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