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Grade 4 Reading Scores Stay Put

Despite reforms, pupils in California place near bottom. Given increase in immigrants tested, state deserves credit for level results, officials say.

June 20, 2003|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

The reading abilities of fourth-graders in California's public schools barely budged over the last decade, a period of expensive educational reforms but also growing enrollments of immigrants with limited English skills, a new federal study showed Thursday.

Scores on a national test kept California's fourth-graders near the bottom of rankings among states. But state and federal education officials suggested that California should be recognized for not losing ground amid the demographic changes and for testing a much bigger share of English learners than other states, such as Texas, with similar populations.

Still, the test scores from the U.S. Department of Education provided little cause for celebration, especially with all the emphasis in California in recent years on improving reading through back-to-basics teaching.

Only 21% of the state's fourth-graders in public schools were fully proficient in reading last year, compared with 19% in 1992, according to the scores. That ranked them 38th out of 46 states and jurisdictions such as Guam that participated in the voluntary exams, and put them in the same cluster as Mississippi, Louisiana, Hawaii, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Nationally, the tests showed that 30% of public-school fourth-graders were proficient in reading, an increase from 27% in 1992.

Proficiency represents "solid academic performance" and is the target achievement level on the reading test. Students at this level have "demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter."

Starting in kindergarten, the California fourth-graders experienced elementary school reforms that introduced new phonics textbooks and boosted teacher training in reading instruction. Those students also were among the first to benefit from the state's reduction of class sizes to 20 pupils in kindergarten through third grade, which has cost more than $10 billion over the last seven years.

Officials in Washington who oversee the test -- known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- praised California for maintaining its scores even as it tested ever-larger numbers of students with limited English skills. Such fourth-grade students made up 10% of the overall California test-takers in 1992 and accounted for 26% last year -- a greater proportion than in any other state.

"If I was in California, I would look at the result as being an improvement, given that they are [including] a higher percentage of students with limited English proficiency," said Sharif Shakrani, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the exam. "It speaks well that the results did not show any significant drop."

Other test experts noted that comparable states, such as Texas, assessed a smaller percentage of their students with limited English skills, and said their scores rose as a result.

Kerry Mazzoni, California's secretary of education, stressed the mixed nature of the test results. "Do we have a long way to go? Yes. Are we focused and doing some things correctly? Yes," she said.

California elementary school students have shown steady progress on the state's own standardized tests, and Mazzoni said those exams offer a more accurate measure of learning.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said of the federal test scores Thursday: "There's nothing here that makes me think we should walk away from our reforms."

The reading test was given last year to 270,000 students in nearly 11,000 schools nationwide in grades 4, 8 and 12. The test took about an hour and included multiple-choice questions, as well as queries that required students to write one- and two-sentence answers.

Twenty percent of California's eighth-graders reached the proficiency level last year, compared with 22% in 1998, the first time information for that grade was available. Thirty-one percent of eighth-graders nationally reached the proficiency level last year, the same as four years ago.

State results were produced for public school fourth- and eighth-graders. Only national results were generated for 12th-graders, and those combined public and private schools.

Twelfth-graders did worse over time: 36% of them were proficient last year, down from 40% four years ago. Federal education officials said the 12th-grade slump, and dwindling numbers of senior test takers, were both causes for concern.

They recently appointed a national commission to study the problems, which may involve more seniors simply not bothering to consider the test with any seriousness since it does not affect their graduation.

"There are no scientific answers to why our high school seniors have performed so poorly on this reading assessment, but we're still searching for solutions," said Rod Paige, the U.S. secretary of education.

Girls in all three grades outperformed boys on the tests in 2002.

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