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Elementary Schools Post Lower Scores

After several years of gains, state test results in math and English either declined or showed no improvement at a majority of campuses.

August 17, 2004|Duke Helfand and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

After several years of marked gains, most public elementary schools in California posted lower scores or showed no improvement this year on standardized English and math tests, according to data released Monday.

State officials tried to make the best of the disappointing results, pointing out that scores remained significantly higher than they did at the beginning of the current testing program four years ago.

But fewer than half of the state's elementary schools showed any increases this year, compared with the nearly 90% that improved last year, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis that combined English and math scores.

Middle schools showed little change this year on the tests that are tied to the state's academic content standards. High schools continued to struggle; only one-quarter did better this year, significantly worse than the previous year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Test scores -- In Tuesday's California section, a chart that accompanied an article about California's public school test results contained an incorrect Web address for obtaining more information about the results. The correct address: www.latimes.com/schoolscores

The slowdown put a dent in the state's efforts to meet new demands under the federal No Child Left Behind education law. It requires all students to be proficient in English and math within a decade.

Even after the increases of the last several years, far less than half of California students are proficient in English-language arts or math. For example, just 30% of third-graders were proficient in English, down three points from last year. And only 35% of sixth-graders were proficient in math, up one point from last year.

"This is not where we want to be. This is not where we hoped we would be," said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. "These scores should be viewed as a wake-up call for us all."

Educators cited several factors to explain the lackluster performance, including budget cuts that have eroded teacher training programs and increases in the numbers of students who are still learning English.

Experts also said the results followed a familiar pattern found in other testing programs across the country: Scores begin to trail off about three years after new exams are introduced as schools' initial focus and enthusiasm begin to fade.

"The first year or two it was brand new. People were really trying to make it work," said Eva Baker, co-director of UCLA's Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. "Now the motivation is at a different place. No matter how hard we work, we're getting incremental" change.

Nearly 4.8 million students in grades two through 11 took the standards tests last spring in English, math, history and science. Individual student scores are being sent home; district and school scores are available on the Times website, http://www.latimes.com/schoolscores. The state's goal was for students to reach at least the "proficient" level in each subject.

Forty-five percent of the state's elementary schools had a decline in the percentage of proficient students this year, 10% had no change, and the remainder showed an increase, according to The Times' analysis.

On average, the state's elementary schools showed only slight gains this year in the percentage of students at the proficient or advanced levels on the English and math tests combined.

Steven Keller, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Laguna Beach Unified School District, said administrators and teachers were surprised at the drop in scores in English for elementary school students. The districts' elementary scores fell from 70% of students testing proficient or advanced in English last year to 63% this year. The math scores increased from 70% to 71%.

The district began a new math program that officials say led to a significant increase in 2003.

But when they revamped the district's English program, officials were surprised to see the scores drop in grades 2 through 4. He said, however, that fifth-graders increased their scores.

"When we implemented the new English program, we were meticulous, comprehensive, thorough," Keller said. "In many respects we thought we were more engaged than with the math program."

Keller said that he met with principals Monday to discuss the data. But the real work won't take place until teachers return in two weeks to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the program. He also said the district will break down the test to determine in which sections students fell down, whether it was word analysis and vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing strategies or literary response and analysis.

Montebello Park Elementary, a year-round school where more than two-thirds of the 422 students are still learning English, struggled to keep its scores up. Overall, the percentage of students proficient in English and math at the East Los Angeles campus dropped by one point from last year, to 22%.

Principal Maria Nunez said it's tough to consistently raise the scores of English learners at a school where the stop-and-start, year-round calendar gives teachers little chance to communicate.

"It's always disappointing when there's a slight dip, but you look and say, 'Now I know what work needs to go on,' " Nunez said.

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