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L.A. Students' Scores Lag on Reading Tests

Far fewer are at the proficiency level than in the national sample, but the district manages to match results in some other big cities.

July 23, 2003|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles fourth-graders scored worse on reading tests than counterparts in New York and Houston, but about the same as youngsters in Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., federal statistics showed Tuesday.

All six of those big-city districts, the only ones included in a new study, fell below national results -- partly because the urban school systems serve so many low-income and immigrant students who are still learning to speak English, some education experts said.

Only 11% of fourth-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District reached the proficient level in reading last year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 18% in Houston and 19% in New York. Nationally, 30% of fourth-graders met that level.

Proficiency represents solid academic performance and is the target achievement level on the reading test.

Los Angeles eighth-graders, meanwhile, produced similar results: 10% of them were proficient readers, the same as in Washington. Atlanta eighth-graders did worse, with only 8% proficient in reading. Houston and Chicago did better, with 17% and 15%, respectively. New York did not test enough eighth-graders to have the scores included in the study.

L.A. Unified officials and outside experts said the local results -- and disappointing state scores released last month -- reflected the fact that Los Angeles tested far higher percentages of students with limited English skills than any of the five other big-city school systems in the voluntary study. It also excluded a much smaller percentage from taking the test.

About 40% of all fourth-graders tested in Los Angeles had limited English skills. By contrast, about 25% of Houston fourth-grade test-takers were still learning English, according to the federal report.

The Los Angeles officials also said that last year's fourth-graders had not benefited from the highly structured phonics-based Open Court reading program and other elementary school reforms that were introduced in the primary grades over the last three years.

Still, Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer cited rising elementary scores on separate state tests as evidence of the district's progress, adding that he expects to see better results on the national tests in coming years.

"This district was in pretty tough shape academically, but we are changing it rapidly. This test doesn't give the comparison of how we are changing," Romer said.

The study set up several levels of reading skills besides the goal of being proficient. The tests, for example, also determined the percentages of students at a lower "basic" level and below that too.

In four of the six urban districts, including Los Angeles, two-thirds of the fourth-graders scored below even the basic level of understanding in reading, meaning they were unable to tell what a story was about after finishing it or to connect aspects of it to their own experiences.

About half of the eighth-graders in the districts also were below the basic level.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban school systems, said the Los Angeles scores were not surprising, given its many challenges.

"Our job is to try to figure out how to overcome those barriers and teach kids to the highest standards," Casserly said. "Part of the reason for taking this [test] is to figure out what's behind these numbers and why some cities are doing better than others."

Los Angeles and the five other school systems are the first to receive district level scores on the national assessments. Until now, the exams produced only state and national results. Four more school districts -- San Diego, Cleveland, Boston and Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina -- will be added this year.

Students took the tests in January through March of 2002 as part of a national program.

The scores revealed that students in the six cities generally fell below national averages in reading and writing -- a performance that disappointed officials in the districts. Last month, California learned that the reading abilities of its fourth-graders had barely changed over the last decade: Just 21% of the state's fourth-graders were fully proficient in reading last year, compared with 19% in 1992.

New York fourth-graders turned in perhaps the most promising performance in writing. Their overall writing scores equaled their counterparts' nationally, with 27% found to be proficient. The scores of African American and Latino students in New York, who account for 70% of the school system's 1.1 million students, generally were better than those for the same groups of students in the other five cities and across the nation.

New York City schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said the district, the nation's largest, stresses writing skills in kindergarten so that students get an early introduction to a skill he considers as important as reading. That jump-start has paid off, he said.

"Reading and writing are mutually complementary," Klein said. "Ultimately, you need both to succeed."

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