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Students Aren't the Only Ones Challenged by the State Exams

The varieties and scoring of the tests, especially a new one, can leave parents puzzled. 'Is my child getting a good education?' is the most important question.

August 16, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

To California parents, the high-stakes test scores released this week will provide a complicated answer to a simple question.

"Is my child getting a good education?" asked Carolyn Leserman, whose three children attend Manhattan Beach Unified schools. "As a parent, I look most closely at my children's scores. I read them. I pay attention to them."

However, many parents like Leserman complain -- and state officials concede -- that the scores are difficult to understand.

"They are confusing, especially when they change tests," Leserman said. "You have to figure out which test you are looking at."

California's state testing program actually is a complex mix of several tests, and they have changed a lot over the last few years.

This year, the largest component is the California Standards Test, which is based on material the state requires students to learn at each grade level. The scores show how well students are doing in key subjects such as math, science, social studies and language arts, and are considered the most accurate assessment of student performance, educators say.

Another is the California Achievement Test/Sixth Edition, also known as the CAT/6. It is a basic-skills exam that allows parents to compare their children's scores with a national sample of students. It replaced last year's Stanford 9 exam, which measured similar skills but scored and tested students differently.

Then there is the SABE/2, or Spanish Assessment of Basic Education, Second Edition, a test that native Spanish-speakers usually take during their first year in California public schools.

Also this year, the state is relying on the results of the California Standards Test and the CAT/6 to measure whether schools have shown "adequate yearly progress," which is required under the federal No Child Left Behind education law. This progress is determined using a formula that includes test scores, graduation rates at high schools, the number of students tested, and proficiency levels in reading and math.

Title I schools, which receive federal funds because they serve predominantly low-income students, are under special scrutiny if they don't make adequate annual progress.

If schools fail to improve, parents theoretically have the right to transfer their children -- with transportation costs paid by the school district -- to another campus. (But in practice, many districts say they can't accommodate such transfers because there is no room.) These schools also may be required to offer extra tutoring and staff development.

Many California campuses, even those that do not receive any federal money, may face state discipline if their scores are too low and are not improving enough.

Those actions could include changes in staff, instructional materials and curricula. In addition, principals might be removed and the state could take over a campus.

To parents, all of these differing measures of performance can be hard to grasp, said Martha Powell, principal of Aldama Elementary School in Highland Park. To help ease the confusion, Powell said, she holds parent advisory meetings to walk them through the reports.

"We explain to them in English and in Spanish. We then tell them the important thing to do is to know how their children did the year before," she said. "We explain to them it's like if you go to a trainer to build up your muscles or get thinner: You have to know where you started and where you are now."

These tests can be used to highlight students' and teachers' weaknesses and strengths. Some high school students earn scholarships based on the exams. Some parents move to a neighborhood based on a school's test results.

The most informative assessment for individual student achievement is the California Standards Test, said Richard Diaz, a testing administrator for the California Department of Education.

"It is far more rigorous," he said. "That's what we're pushing. That's what we're asking districts to do, so we have a systematic way of looking at what people are teaching across the state."

The California Standards Test corresponds with what is being taught in the state's schools, and they "are a fairly easy-to-grasp indicator of how a student is doing," said Brian Edwards, a senior policy analyst for EdSource, a Palo Alto-based education think tank.

The scores tell "you something about how the kid is doing and may tell you about how the school is doing."

The Department of Education divides up these scores based on five categories: far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced.

State officials say the goal for all California students is to reach the proficient category, in which they demonstrate strong mastery of that grade level's material. High school students at the proficient level are considered primed to enter a university.

If students fall below proficient, they may need extra guidance and help to improve.

Parents will receive their child's numerical scores on the standards, along with a category ranking in each subject area.

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