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Test Gains in Early Grades

September 08, 2002

As the Stanford 9 test bows out of California, it leaves Orange County with some school performances to cheer and some more disturbing patterns that bear careful watching over the next few years.

The standardized test that has dominated the public-school agenda during the past five years will give way to a new national exam from a different publisher, and to an increased emphasis on testing geared toward California's high new academic standards.

Since the first year of disappointing scores, several schools in the county have managed to double or even triple the number of students who test at least at the national average, according to the latest batch of scores released in late August. Back in 1998, only 22% of the students at Buena Park's Whitaker Elementary scored average or higher; this year, more than half of them pulled it off. There are similar success stories throughout the county.

Few of those stories, though, can be told about the county's older students. Tracking the schools by grade can be a depressing exercise in graphing, as the percentage of students at or above average falls off at a pretty steady pace. The most marked difference is in reading. Nearly 60% of the county's second-graders can read at least as well as average; that falls to the low 40s in high school.

Just as important as the overall score is how much a school improved, and here the younger children again win out over the big kids.

Look at the 54 Orange County schools that, since the tests started, managed at least a 20-point gain in the percentage of average-or-better students. One was an intermediate school; all the rest were elementary.

So what's going on with our preteenagers and teenagers? The answer isn't clear. Some of it could be as simple as desire to do well. Teenagers are notoriously less willing to please than younger students; they're also more able to discriminate between tests that "count," such as SATs and midterms that colleges see, and tests that in their eyes make no difference.

Another item worth remembering: The state's biggest gift to public schools during the past several years went into the earliest grades. It came in the form of smaller class sizes--no more than 20 students in first through third grade at most schools. The first crop of students to benefit from all three years of those smaller classes is just hitting junior high.

It's not time to panic over the county's older students. Not yet, anyway. The early grades encompass the crucial years for instilling reading skills that benefit young scholars throughout their academic careers and beyond. If the state's strategy is working, it should prove itself as this group of youngsters heads toward graduation.

Of course, if that improvement isn't showing up within four or five years, it will be time to question whether California's bold experiment in primary education paid off, whether reading instruction needs to be bent more toward the comprehension and expression needed in higher grades, or whether high schoolers need a bigger share of the school budget.

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