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Scores Lag in Higher Grades

Some high school students see the problem as one of priorities.

November 24, 2002|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

By most measures, Dana Hills High School would be the envy of any educator. The Dana Point campus in Orange County sends 95% of its graduates to colleges. Many of its students are enrolled in advanced courses, and their Scholastic Assessment Test scores are among the highest in the nation.

But there's one target Dana Hills failed to make this year: the state's Academic Performance Index, the main accountability measure that California is using for public schools.

The school needed to improve its score by one point above last year's to meet its state-set target. Instead, Dana Hills' API dropped 22 points to 775. That still is a respectable score, putting Dana Hills in the top 20% of public high schools.

Yet the drop is consistent with lackluster API performance at most California high schools, a trend educators would like to reverse. Only 43% of high schools met their API targets this year, compared with 74% of elementary schools.

But the reasons for the lower scores are complex. At Dana Hills, students and educators say, scores dropped, not because the students learned less but because they cared less. It's one more set of tests for already busy high school students, and it has little bearing on their grades or college aspirations.

"I do enjoy high school, but [there] is so much work," said A.J. Dronkers, 16, a Dana Hills junior. "If you were given a test at work and it didn't really influence anything, would you care? It is just a state test."

In fact, API scores vary widely from high school to high school; from the state's highest -- 964 points for Gretchen Whitney High in Cerritos -- to the lowest -- 380 points for Oakland's McClymonds Senior High. The maximum possible score is 1,000, the minimum 200. And each school has a precise target to meet, depending on its scores the previous year.

But whether they are at the top or the bottom of the state rankings, California high schools seem to be having a harder time improving their scores. On average, elementary schools increased their APIs more than 15 points this year. Middle schools increased an average of nearly 6 points. High schools improved less than 4 points, on average. Tests are required for students in second through 11th grades.

Education officials say the gap is partially the result of the state's devoting greater resources to primary grades in recent years. Measures have included a mandated class-size reduction that has brought the student-teacher ratio down to 20-to-1.

The result is that many early-grade classrooms are showing significantly improved performance.

Jammed classes in upper grades may be a factor. But reliance on API scores, which are based on students' performance on standardized tests such as the Stanford 9 and the California Standards Test, while helpful in flagging failing schools, may not be a sufficient measure for high school students, educators say.

"There is so much that is asked of [high school] students when it comes to tests," said Dana Hills Assistant Principal Adam Ochwat. "They are constantly asking themselves, 'Which ones do I gear up for?' "

Not API-related tests, evidently.

A recent state analysis of scores on the Stanford 9 -- a test that until last year was the sole component in API calculations -- showed that performance tends to lag or even drop as students enter high school.

In 1998, 43% of California second-graders were performing at or above the national average in math. When those same students reached sixth grade, 60% of them were hitting that mark. By comparison, 46% of sixth-graders scored at or above the national average in math in 1998. By 10th grade, the same group showed no improvement.

"Part of the problem is that, in early grades, the tests are much more aligned with what students are learning," such as basic math and language skills, said Paul Warren, deputy superintendent of accountability for the state Department of Education. "But by the time kids get to high school, their curriculums are much more varied and it is harder to test them."

In the spring, when principals and teachers are preparing for the state tests, some coax their students with pep rallies and popcorn parties to psych them up for grueling sessions that can last as long as nine hours.

At Dana Hills, teachers noticed that some of the brightest students were still blowing off the tests, Ochwat said. So last spring, school officials promised to share with the student body any cash awards the state gave for meeting its API targets. Scores jumped 48 points.

But with the state in a budget crisis, those awards have been curtailed. And the once-promised cash prizes for teachers of high-performing schools have been eliminated, along with any future awards for the schools. Dana Hills is still waiting for about $150,000 it earned for last year's gains.

"It is just irresponsible to make promises that they can't keep," said Sarah Rodgers, 15, a sophomore. She also grumbled that some students who raised the scores last year already have graduated and won't see any benefit. High school administrators say they sympathize with the students. But for the schools, the scores do matter. Many parents see them as a measure of how schools are doing. Moreover, campuses that consistently fall behind risk state sanctions.

"We stress to students that the colleges are going to look at the reputation of the schools they are applying from," said Michael Leininger, principal at La Canada High School, which has bucked the trend and increased its scores every year.

"We also spread the tests over five days [instead of the typical three days at many schools]. There is only so much their brains can take before they start making little patterns on the test sheets."

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