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Schools Show New Progress

February 26, 2003

California pours out scores on its student assessments, from the Stanford 9 to exit exams. They're so numerous and so complicated that it's hard to know what they mean. But the latest set, the school performance rankings, delivered perhaps the most significant message to date for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its elementary schools aren't just improving; they're beginning to close the gap with schools in the state's more affluent, high-achieving areas.

The Academic Performance Index rankings compare each school with others in the state and assign it a number, from 1 to 10. Elementary school students across the state have made impressive gains on the standardized tests administered each spring. But the rankings released last week show that L.A.'s youngest students are pulling up their scores more substantially than those in the state's more affluent schools.

On average, L.A. elementary schools' ranking rose from 3 to 4. The gain is all the more important because for the first time these rankings are based mainly on California's own standards test, not the more generic Stanford 9 exam.

A 4 is still below average, but the thinning gap with higher-ranking schools shows that district reforms are working. The reforms include improved teacher training and a more heavily scripted curriculum in math and reading.

The L.A. school district's middle and high schools, though, aren't narrowing the gap with higher-achieving schools. Statewide, this age group's scores have been relatively flat. The Los Angeles performance was similar, with L.A. schools remaining in the bottom third.

The district plans to bring structured lessons and other reforms to its secondary schools. As the better-prepared elementary schoolers move on, they will be ready to take on those lessons, which come too late for today's teenagers. The current crop of students needs immediate remedial help, such as the expansion of the "Language!" program, which drills functionally illiterate high schoolers in basic phonics, and the introduction of a similar program in math.

The district may never pull the lagging classes to where they should be, but it is obliged to try much harder now that it understands what succeeds.

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