As officials prepare for this week's release of statewide school test results, early indications are that educators in many parts of California are about to get a rare bolt of good news.
Districts that have received their scores early--ranging from Sacramento to Orange County--are reporting improvements, sometimes substantial ones, compared with last year. This is the second year in a row that the state has given the Stanford 9. Experts note that scores almost always improve in the first few years a test is given as students and teachers become more familiar with it. But many of the gains being reported appear to go beyond what simple repetition would have produced.
Rising scores are likely to strengthen the argument for maintaining the state's current course on education policy: more accountability based on testing coupled with an emphasis on basic skills such as phonics instruction in the lower grades.
At the same time, an improving picture statewide is likely to increase the pressure on those districts that continue to lag or resist the state's direction.
And if the improvements hold up when the full statewide set of scores becomes public, the results would be an important boost for Gov. Gray Davis, who has publicly staked his reelection on improving the state's public schools. Although the Democrat's own education reforms will not begin to take effect until next school year, he is likely to gain politically from any uptick in results.
(This year's scores will be published on the California Department of Education's Web site, http://www.cde.ca.gov. State officials are required by law to post the scores by midnight Wednesday. The Times plans to publish a cross-section of scores from schools in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.)
The stakes for the statewide exams given in the public schools have been high since the testing program began last year. Some districts will use the scores to determine which children get to move up a grade and which schools will need crisis funding to bolster instruction.
But the Stanford 9 assumed even heftier significance with the passage this spring of California's latest round of education reform measures.
"This is the beginning of the high-stakes accountability system," said Ron Dietel, director of communications for the federally funded Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. "It is really important, particularly for a parent, to get as much information as possible. We just have to get the process right."
The centerpiece of that accountability system is an academic performance index, which will use test scores to rank California's 8,000 schools. The unprecedented ordering will launch Davis' ballyhooed push for accountability, with the idea that performance will dictate which schools merit rewards and which deserve sanctions.
One unintended consequence of the law is that, for at least a few years, the ranking will be determined solely by results on the Stanford 9 and on blocks of additional test items aimed at assessing students' knowledge of the state's rigorous new content standards for reading, math and, later, science and history.
Some Statistics Not Yet Available
Two other statistics that were intended to be part of the formula--graduation and attendance rates--do not yet exist. Officials are scrambling to devise methods of compiling them but acknowledge that reliable figures are years away.
California is far from alone in relying on testing to judge how well students and schools are doing. To remain eligible for federal funds designed to aid low-income schools, all states by next year must develop statewide standards, multiple assessment methods and an accountability program.
Among the 41 states that have such programs in place, test scores have emerged as the key measure. That is true "no matter how much they say other indicators have a good deal of weight," said Judie Mathers, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit group in Denver that helps develop education policies.
Still, even Harcourt Educational Measurement, which publishes the Stanford 9, said test scores should be considered just one piece of a bigger puzzle.
"There's so much that goes into the mix," said Joanne M. Lenke, the company's president. "Test scores give one picture, but there are other pictures to be taken."
In California, one problem is that schools are accumulating an ever-mutating mix of scores, making valid comparisons difficult.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, instituted the Stanford 9 in 1997, a year before much of the rest of the state. Last year, it used a newer version of the exam. This year, some students with limited English-speaking proficiency took a Spanish-language test called the SABE/2. Students also had to answer questions reflecting academic standards set by California.