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Most Schools Do Better, but 925 Come Up Short

August 16, 2003|Duke Helfand and Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writers

Students' standardized test scores in English and math rose at most California public schools this year, but 925 campuses serving low-income students still received a federal scolding because their gains weren't big enough for at least the second year in a row, according to data released Friday.

Under federal law, those 925 schools, about 11% of public schools in the state, must offer their students transfers to other campuses in the fall and spend part of their federal education funding on transportation or extra tutoring. However, crowding at many other campuses probably will limit the numbers of transfers, officials said.

As in the past, elementary students this year showed the largest increases on tests linked to California's academic standards in English/language arts and math -- material that is supposed to be taught in all classrooms.

For example, 36% of fifth-graders were proficient or better in English, a 5-percentage-point gain on the California Standards Test from last year. Meanwhile, 53% of second-graders were at least proficient in math, up 10 percentage points from last year. Proficiency is defined as strong mastery of that grade level's material.

High schools showed far less progress. For example, 33% of 10th-graders were proficient in English this year, the same as last year, and 11th-graders gained just one point, to 32%.

State leaders described the overall improvements as evidence that California's education reforms -- including intensive teacher training, tougher academic standards and new textbooks tied to those standards -- are paying off.

"The test scores are clearly going in the right direction," said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. "Every child can learn and every child can excel."

Statewide, 81% of schools increased the numbers of students proficient in both English and math this year compared to last year, according to a Times analysis. The schools moved an additional 4% of their students -- or about 138,000 more youngsters -- into the proficient category from below it.

In Los Angeles County, 90% of schools increased the numbers of proficient students; as did 86% in Orange County, 78% in Ventura County, 77% in Riverside County and 84% in San Bernardino County.

However, some schools with higher scores on the state standards tests appeared troubled through the lens of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

That 2002 law requires schools to test at least 95% of their students. It allows states to set levels of proficiency; in California, schools were supposed to have about 13% of their students at that level this year. In addition, designated groups of pupils within each school -- such as whites, Asians, African Americans, Latinos, special education students and those still learning English -- were supposed to hit that mark.

Schools that receive federal Title I money for low-income students are under special scrutiny. Those that don't test enough students or don't meet the goals are determined not to be making "adequate yearly progress." Those that repeatedly fail must offer their students transfers to other campuses or outside tutoring.

State officials said 55% of schools made their adequate yearly progress, up from 32% last year. But they said they were not surprised that more than 900 campuses were placed on the federal watch list. They also said the No Child Left Behind law penalizes many schools on technicalities or for the scores of small categories of students.

"It is a bad system to punish people when you set standards they can't possibly make," said Roy Romer, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest school system in the state. "I have to say to my people: Don't be discouraged by the arbitrariness of this law. I don't want to allow [it] to destroy the progress we are making."

L.A. Unified elementary schools posted bigger testing increases this year than the state in math and English. For example, 26% of fifth-graders were proficient or better in English, up 8 points from last year. Statewide, 36% of fifth-graders were at least proficient this year, up 5 points from last year.

Still, the district's scores were significantly lower overall than the state's as a whole. And 118 of the district's 541 schools receiving federal Title I monies are on the list that requires them to offer transfers and specialized services.

Romer said his staffers are still trying to figure out how many students will qualify for transfers and how the district will handle a possible crush if many parents request them. Districts that have no room for the transfers can negotiate with adjacent districts, but that is considered a very difficult prospect for political and logistical reasons.

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