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A Higher Learning Curve

The year saw major gains in education reforms. But issues such as vouchers and budget cuts loom.

December 29, 2001|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the distractions of the state's energy crisis and the nation's war on terrorism, 2001 was a big year for education reform, both in Congress and in California classrooms.

Accomplishments ranged from boosting students' basic skills in city schools to setting a national agenda in a sweeping federal education bill passed at year's end.

But some divisive issues, such as school vouchers, remain unresolved. And California's six-year spurt in education spending appears headed for a slowdown next month, when Gov. Gray Davis will ask the Legislature to redraw the state's recession-battered budget.

Shootings at two high schools in San Diego County this year served as reminders that campus security can be easily, brutally breached--despite lessons learned from Colorado's Columbine High killings in 1999. Charles Andrew Williams, a quiet 15-year-old, allegedly killed two students and injured 13 people in March at Santana High School in Santee. Three weeks later, an 18-year old student shot and wounded five people at Granite Hills High School in nearby El Cajon.

"If there was a simple answer [to school violence], we would have had the answer by now," said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob after the second shooting. "The fact is: There is not a simple answer."

Security worries only escalated with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scares later. School officials nationally were forced to guard not just against possible gunfire, but also against possibly more lethal biological and biochemical attacks.

Meanwhile, in higher education, the University of California set off national debates with its proposals for reform. UC President Richard Atkinson in February proposed to drop the SAT exam as an entrance requirement, saying it was unfair and failed to measure how much students learned in high school.

And in November, the university's governing body voted to overhaul the entire admissions policy. The new process will allow personal achievements--not just grades, test scores and factors such as adversity--to be considered for all freshman applicants.

Critics called the move a backdoor revival of race-based admissions--outlawed by California voters in 1996. But UC Regent Ward Connerly, an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, was won over by an amendment declaring that the new policy would not restore racial considerations to the admissions process.

In K-12 education, President Bush set the stage for reform with his campaign promise to "leave no child behind."

Although his personal focus on schools was diverted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress pushed forward with a compromise education bill this month even as partisan rivalry scuttled an economic stimulus package.

Marking the most significant education reform in decades, the bill set schools on a new course. It increased federal spending, required every state to test students annually in grades three to eight, and aimed to improve the achievement of poor and minority children. The impact in California, however, was not expected to be profound, because the state has had a testing and accountability program in place for several years.

The bill made no provision for private school vouchers--a hot-button issue, especially for Democrats. The issue may be settled in part by the U.S. Supreme Court, which this year took on a challenge to a Cleveland program that uses tax money to send poor students to religious schools.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress were spurred to overcome their differences by American schoolchildren's lackluster performance on national and international tests.

This month, the Program for International Student Assessment Test placed the United States near the middle among 32 industrialized nations in math and science, but showed that the standing of American students declined in the higher grades.

Earlier this year, release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures the academic performance of American children over time, showed little change during the 1990s in reading and science.

It also showed that minority students scoring significantly below whites despite years of reforms aimed at closing that gap. On the science test, California students tied for last among 40 states.

A small but vocal backlash against high-stakes testing persisted during 2001, although a poll by the nonpartisan Public Agenda showed that Americans still widely support standardized testing as a check on the effectiveness of public education.

California and Arizona launched yet another test--competency examinations for aspiring high school graduates. In California, where the test was voluntary in its trial year, 64% of ninth-graders passed the language portion and 44% the math portion. Concerns over potential liability for failing to teach the material on the exam led both states to consider delaying or watering down the tests.

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