Ventura County students again scored above state and U.S. norms on the yearly national Stanford 9 tests, officials said Thursday.
But on the California Standards Test, viewed by some educators as a more accurate reflection of school effectiveness, local students appeared less successful. Still exceeding state averages, 39% of Ventura County students on the state exam tested as proficient or better in math; 41% reached that level in language arts.
The results are encouraging but show that "we've got a ways to go," county schools Supt. Charles Weis said.
Generally buoyed by this year's round of test scores, local educators pointed to their efforts at meeting recently instituted state standards. They also credited smaller class sizes for a jump in reading scores among elementary school students.
Many echoed the comments of Mike Vollmert, testing coordinator for the Conejo Valley schools.
"There were no surprises," Vollmert said. "We expected incremental increases and we got them."
Last spring's tests were given to 106,753 Ventura County students in grades 2 to 11. On the Stanford 9, they scored six points above the state averages in math--the same margin posted annually since 1999. They were less accomplished in reading but still outdid the state average by seven points.
Oak Park, an affluent district in the east county, topped the charts on Stanford 9 scores as well as on the California Standards Test in math and language arts. Poorer districts with more limited-English students, such as those in El Rio and Santa Paula, hovered near the bottom.
But the gap between rich and poor was less significant on the state tests than the Stanford 9, said Weis, adding that the 2-year-old state testing system measures student performance more accurately.
At least 30% of the questions on the Stanford 9 tests fall outside California's curriculum, Weis said. The California Standards Tests, on the other hand, are designed to reflect the material teachers are supposed to explore in California classrooms.
Schools that scrambled to meet the state standards fared better than others despite being less affluent, Weis said, citing the Camarillo area's Pleasant Valley Elementary School District and Somis' tiny Mesa Union scoring in the same league as the more affluent Oak Park and Conejo Valley districts.
Critics contend many tests measure only the ability of students to take the tests rather than their ability to learn. But some educators believe teachers and students are helped by standards as specific as those gauged by California's state tests.
"It's a wonderful shift," Ventura Unified Supt. Trudy Arriaga said. Once teachers know how proficiency is defined--even down to fundamental tasks such as sounding out the beginning of a word or counting to 100--they can nudge students toward it, she said.
A Times analysis of the state's data showed the biggest Stanford 9 improvements in the county were logged by Briggs Elementary School in Santa Paula and Portola Elementary School in Ventura.
At Briggs, students benefit from after-school tutoring, a homework period during the day and an emphasis on the state standards, Briggs School District Supt. Carol Vines said.
"We've done much more testing as we've gone along," Vines said. "When we see children who haven't achieved skills, we've backed up and done it again instead of just moving forward."
At Portola, just 35% of the students met the national norm on the Stanford 9 in 1998. Last year that figure more than doubled, to 77%.
Teresa Johnson, the principal at the 550-student school, said some of her teachers work an extra hour a day with students who are lagging. To better focus classroom work, she said, teachers have been trained in a set of techniques called "blackboard configuration," which lets children know what they will be learning in the session to come.
"We're dedicated to teaching to the standards," Johnson said. "We're very focused."
A feeling of safety on campus also has contributed to the dramatic increase in test scores. Portola's conflict-resolution program has eased disputes among students, making it easier for them to learn, Johnson said.
At the other end of the spectrum, students at Santa Paula High School were among the county's low scorers, despite a boost over last year's showing.
"Obviously, we're not pleased," Santa Paula Union High District Supt. Bill Brand said. "We'd love to be up in the median range for the county. But, in small steps, we're moving upward."
Brand said the high school hit its target scores in the most recent round of tests. He said teachers began intense remedial classes during the school year and over the summer, and that administrators are working more closely with their counterparts in Santa Paula's elementary and middle schools, trying to improve student achievement all around.
"We're attacking it," Brand said. "Together we can make this thing work."