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L.A. teachers' union calls for boycott of testing

Axing 'periodic assessments' would save money, UTLA says. But district leaders want teachers to give the exams, which a Times analysis suggests are boosting scores in algebra and English.

January 28, 2009|Howard Blume

The Los Angeles teachers union and the city's school district are battling over a district practice that, a Times' analysis suggests, contributes to higher scores on state tests.

The practice is "periodic assessments," a bureaucratic name for exams administered by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The goal is to give teachers insight into what students need to learn while there remains time in the current school year to adjust instruction.The union Tuesday directed teachers to refuse to give them to students on the grounds that the tests are costly and counterproductive.

But there could be a downside.

The local exams, given three or four times a year at secondary schools, appear to be boosting state scores in 10th-grade English and Algebra 1 -- the two subjects examined by The Times -- and therefore perhaps other subjects as well.

The district tests, which have gradually permeated most core academic subjects and most grade levels, have become central to a debate over the proliferation of testing, whether it interrupts instruction and can narrow the depth and breadth of what's taught. The philosophical dispute sharpened this week amid protracted, stalled negotiations over a teachers contract and the need to slash millions to address an ongoing budget crisis.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 104 words Type of Material: Correction
LAUSD testing: An article in the Jan. 28 California section about a teachers union call for a boycott of district-mandated testing overstated the correlation between improvements in test scores and increased use of periodic assessments. The article said the association was strong last year in 10th-grade English and moderate in Algebra I for high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The article should have said that, based on the Times analysis, the association was moderate in English and weak in algebra. The district's own subsequent research shows what L.A. Unified regards as a strong association between the assessments and higher test scores.

Axing these district assessments would spare jobs by saving millions of dollars -- and would improve instruction at the same time, said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

The union's call for a boycott of the tests has emerged as an early trial for new Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who took over Jan. 1.

Cortines asserted that the assessments are part of teachers' assigned duties -- they are not optional. He also said he has and will amend aspects of the tests that need fixing. But he won't toss them out because, he said, they have contributed strongly to rising performance on the state's own annual tests.

He may be right, based on a Times' analysis of last year's improved state test scores in 10th-grade English and Algebra 1.

The Times found that greater participation in the district assessments was associated with better scores. In 10th-grade English, the correlation was fairly strong, accounting for nearly half the improvement.

The link was more moderate in Algebra 1, explaining about one-third of the gains for high school students in that subject.

The Times looked at these two subjects in part because the data were available -- it isn't for all subjects -- and also because of importance of these courses. Algebra 1, for example, is considered a "gateway" course to academic success.

The district has not produced its own analysis on the effect of increased participation but has collected less-conclusive data showing that students who do well on the district's tests also excel on the state's tests.

Duffy remains skeptical.

"The pig does not get fatter when you weigh it 10 times a day," Duffy said. "And if the test scores do go up, isn't it phony? Because what you are doing is teaching to the test, teaching a subject that has been narrowed down radically. We're not creating smarter kids. We're creating smarter test takers."

Duffy announced the boycott Tuesday at Emerson Middle School on the Westside, where teachers said the district tests were too burdensome on top of already mandated state and federal testing.

"We are supposed to be teaching, not testing," said Emerson English teacher Cecily Myart-Cruz. "We can come up with our own assessments in our classroom, and we do -- every day."

Top officials, however, had concluded that too many instructors failed to enforce high standards or didn't focus properly on teaching the specific skills and knowledge required by the state.

"This is not to be onerous for teachers and principals and schools," Cortines said. "It is to be helpful."

Unraveling the apparent benefit can be complex, said retired district official Roger Rasmussen, who long headed the district's analysis unit. Schools that are able to perform the assessments correctly, he said, may be those that have developed a cohesive staff, for example, which may be the real driver of improvement.

Cortines' predecessor, David L. Brewer, a retired Navy vice admiral, tackled inconsistent participation in the tests at high schools by ordering a 95% participation rate. He credited that directive with last year's rise in test scores, the biggest jump in five years.

But districtwide, the high school participation rate in English barely budged, and while the increase was greater in math, it still fell far short of Brewer's target.

Yet, the schools with increased participation generally reaped benefits. The lackluster overall response resulted in part from problems at schools. The assessments have occurred at the wrong time, for example, at some year-round campuses, where students start their school year at various times.

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