Despite thousands of teacher layoffs and shrinking school budgets, Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest school system, posted gains on annual standardized tests. Schools statewide also posted overall gains in results released Monday.
The rising scores brought generally good news concerning various reform efforts underway in L.A. Unified, including at Locke High School and at 12 schools overseen by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Schools still under direct district control also showed gains, some of them larger than the higher-profile efforts touted as superior to what the district could accomplish.
As in past years, the local and statewide gains are incremental. For the most part, low-performing schools are still low-performing and vast achievement gaps remain between low-income black and Latino students and their white and Asian counterparts. Black students are faring the worst.
The state oversees annual testing in grades two through 11. Students take a common English test and basic math tests until they move up to end-of-course exams for algebra, geometry or more advanced algebra. There also are subject tests at some grade levels in science and history. A student's raw score falls into one of five categories; the highest two are proficient and advanced.
These tests are used by the state Department of Education to calculate the soon-to-be-released Academic Performance Index, which measures schools. These same tests are being used in an ongoing effort by The Times to estimate the effectiveness of teachers.
On the state tests, the percentage of all students at or above the proficient level in California increased by two points in English and two points in math in the last year. Statewide, about 43% of 11th-graders are proficient in English; about one-third of students pass algebra, a graduation requirement, on their first try. And fewer students succeed in higher-level math.
Locke High, on the edge of Watts, became the first traditional Los Angeles school handed over to an outside organization when Green Dot Public Schools took over in July 2008. First-year scores remained virtually unchanged and exceptionally low. This year, the percentage of students proficient in English rose modestly from 13.7% to 14.9%; in math, from 4% to 6.7%.
"There is so much focus on test scores that people miss the bigger picture of what a turnaround is about," said Green Dot chief executive Marco Petruzzi. "The first thing you need to do is keep kids enrolled."
Enrollment and attendance rates surged, even as enrollment has declined elsewhere.
Locke began last year with about 250 more students than in its final year under L.A. Unified. And Green Dot asserts that 95% remain enrolled; independent state figures are unavailable.
Among ninth-graders who started under Green Dot two years ago, figures show 73% are still at Locke after 10th grade. That compares to 44% of students who remained after 10th grade in the class of 2008, under L.A. Unified. (The L.A. Unified percentage is worse in part because its ninth-grade number included students repeating ninth grade.)
More Locke students are taking exams in courses required for admission to state four-year colleges. Last year, 785 more students took math tests, 894 more took science tests and 603 more took history tests. Also, Locke's passing rate is up for the mandatory high school exit exam.
Among the mayor's 12 schools, located south or east of downtown, 99th Street Elementary soared for the second year, leading the upward momentum. But last year's climb at Sunrise Elementary reversed.
At the new Mendez complex east of downtown, fewer than 2% of students scored as proficient in math.
"Today's test results are not where I expected them to be," Villaraigosa said. "We're going to keep on working hard."
As at Locke, some steps have yet to translate to test scores, including identifying more gifted students and returning long-crowded Roosevelt High to a traditional academic calendar a year ahead of schedule.
Traditional L.A. Unified schools that made strong gains in each of the last two years included Hollywood High and Bell High; Mt. Gleason and Dodson middle schools; and Broadway and 59th Street elementary schools. District-wide, middle schools showed notable progress.
"We began the 2009-10 school year under dire financial conditions," L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said. "Through it all, students and teachers prevailed."
Black students in California improved their proficiency rates but remain the lowest-scoring racial group, with 32% proficient in math and 39% proficient in English.
"We have been unsuccessful in narrowing the achievement gap as much as we really have to," said Deb Sigman, the state's deputy superintendent of schools. "We must do a better job."