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California sees a surprise drop in student test scores

Reversal of a long-term trend in student test scores disturbs educators. But L.A. Unified students outperform many.

August 08, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe
  • Test scores at Jordan High School, which posted the largest gains among L.A. Unified's traditional high schools last year, fell across the board this year. Officials there attributed the setback to the midyear departure of the principal, two major outside reviews, a campus reconstruction project and other challenges.
Test scores at Jordan High School, which posted the largest gains among… (Bethany Mollenkof / Los…)

For the first time in a decade, California standardized test scores in English and math slipped this year, flummoxing educators who blame budget cuts and new national learning standards that have required curriculum changes.

Despite the statewide slip in scores, released Thursday, Los Angeles Unified School District largely held its own: Students posted the highest gain in math among 10 large urban school districts and a smaller drop in English than statewide peers.

Scores rose particularly in two grades — sixth and ninth — that have adopted new academic learning standards, even as some educators pointed to them for the statewide decline.

Overall, the percentage of students at grade level in English slipped to 56.4%, from 57.2%, and in math to 51.2%, from 51.5%. Achievement in both subjects had steadily improved since 2004, when only about a third of students performed at grade level.

The uncertainty surrounding the annual scores underscored the dicey nature of predicting student test performance or placing too much stock in year-to-year changes, experts said. Some said it could have been a statistical anomaly.

"It's very counterintuitive," L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy said of the state decline. "I don't know how to make sense of it."

Schools that might have been expected to slip improved. Miramonte Elementary scored gains in both reading and math despite upheaval over the arrest of a teacher charged with lewd conduct involving students. Several small schools at the Roosevelt and Mendez high school campuses made strong gains even as they experienced the major distractions of reorganization.

And some campuses that made significant progress last year slipped this year. Test scores at Jordan High School, which posted the largest gains among the district's traditional high schools last year, fell across the board. Officials there attributed the setback to the midyear departure of the principal, two major outside reviews, a campus reconstruction project and other challenges.

Roosevelt, Mendez and Jordan are operated by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit started by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Several elementary schools operated by the nonprofit posted smaller-than-expected gains. Colleen Oliver, its chief academic officer, said assessments throughout the year had indicated that scores would be higher.

Overall, however, the number of Partnership students at grade level in reading, math, science and history increased. "There are some areas where I'm scratching my head," Oliver said. "It did make me wonder whether there is something happening with this state test."

But John Rogers, a professor with the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, cautioned against reading too much into one year's scores — particularly at individual schools, where students and teaching conditions can easily change.

"There shouldn't be too much concern about a blip this year," he said. "If this becomes a trend in three years with a stalling out or continued decline, that would raise serious concerns."

Deasy, Oliver and others credited teachers for the steady performance despite widespread cuts during the recession. The state has slashed $20 billion from campuses in the last five years, resulting in the loss of 30,000 teachers, a shorter academic year, larger classes and cutbacks in summer and after-school programs and other offerings.

"In the midst of the ridiculous recession, we made progress," Deasy said. "This is all due to teachers. I couldn't be more proud of them."

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Assn., said the statewide fall in scores was not surprising amid budget cutbacks. But he called the overall improvement of the last decade a "success story ... that's a testament to teachers."

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson additionally blamed the decline on the state's transition to the new Common Core national learning standards. Those standards aim to challenge students by presenting less subject material but teaching it more deeply and are being phased in across the state, for full introduction by next fall.

"As you would expect for a school system in transition, results varied ... but the big picture is one of remarkable resilience despite the challenges," Torlakson said in a statement.

In L.A., however, Deasy said the students who shifted this year to Common Core standards made the greatest improvement. Among ninth-graders, for instance, the percentage at grade level in English rose to 45% from 40%, and in algebra I to 31% from 27%.

Despite such gains, the district failed to achieve its ambitious performance goals, falling far short of targets for English, math, algebra and third-grade English. Overall, 48% of students were at grade level in English and 45% in math. L.A. Unified schools have always lagged behind the state, but the district typically has improved at a faster rate.

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