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Impressive Boost in California's Test Scores

Ohanian Comment: NOte how the journalists lead off by emphasizing that these results come on "some of the toughtest tests in the nation," that it's "the rigorous California Standards Test." It sets a tone for informing the public schools are improving on tests.

California students -- rich and poor -- performed better this year than last on some of the toughest tests in the nation, even though only about a third ranked proficient in language arts and math.

New results from the rigorous California Standards Test, released Friday, show that 35 percent of students are proficient in reading and writing, up from 32.5 percent last year.

In math, 35 percent of students rank proficient or above, up from 30.8 percent last year.

"We are clearly on the right track," said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of schools.

The test was given to 4.6 million students from the second to 11th grades last spring. Slightly more than half of those students were considered low- income, and state officials were especially encouraged by improvements in that group.

The most impressive showing was among low-income second-graders, 41 percent of whom scored at least proficient -- compared with fewer than a third last year. Improvements in reading and writing among low-income students showed up in nearly every grade.

In San Francisco, elementary school students showed large gains in math. In Oakland, the greatest gains were in elementary reading. And in a district with some of the Bay Area's poorest children, San Mateo County's Ravenswood City Elementary, students gained proficiency in reading and math.

California's results impressed some of the toughest testing critics in the nation, who praised the state for focusing primarily on a test that measures students' knowledge of skills that the state wants them to know.

California also administered a short, new, off-the-shelf test of basic skills called the CAT6, which replaced the Stanford 9 exam the state had given since 1998. On this test, students generally scored just below the national average in reading, language, math, spelling and science.

But California's accountability system -- and the state's compliance with new federal regulations -- rely on the standards test.

"For a state like California -- big and diverse -- the (gains) are very significant on a test as rigorous as this," said Michael Cohen, a former education adviser to President Bill Clinton who now is president of Achieve, a Washington nonprofit that helps states develop academic standards.

California's pride was tempered by the failure of nearly half its schools to meet a new federal achievement threshold called "adequate yearly progress."

Under new federal regulations, the failure of even one group of students within a school to progress as quickly as other groups -- or to have enough students take the test -- means the entire school fails to meet the requirement. Schools that don't fix their problems over the next few years could eventually be taken over by the state.

Gov. Gray Davis used the news of the California Standards Test to remind a public dissatisfied with him that education has been a cornerstone of his tenure.

"Thanks to our reforms, across the state more children are moving up the achievement ladder every year," he said.

Throughout the Bay Area, districts' test results mirrored those of the state.

In Oakland, where the entire district recently was taken over by a state administrator because of financial mismanagement, students gained in every grade except ninth and 10th.

And though Oakland posted results in the bottom third of districts statewide, principals were giddy that it was able to shift thousands of students out of the lowest test rankings of "far below basic" and "below basic. "

"I think it shows our new reading programs are working, as well as the positive effects of eliminating teacher turnover," said Oakland school board member Kerry Hamill.

Math scores improved in every grade but eighth. Gains were especially eye- popping at McClymonds High, where a quarter of the freshmen exited the worst- performing categories.

King Estates, which had been one of the lower-scoring middle schools in the district, improved greatly, with 15 percent of students leaving the lowest categories.

"We made great gains," said Louise Waters, the district's testing director, who credited new, color-coded charts for teachers that show every student's progress, as well as a middle school reading program called High Point that groups students according to their ability.

Mayor Jerry Brown's controversial pet project, the 2-year-old Oakland Military Institute charter school, failed to outscore most students in the state in reading -- although its eighth-graders read better than most of their Oakland peers.

"We're getting there, but it's very difficult to reform education in Oakland," Brown said. "It's an enormous challenge to overcome the culture of the family."

The annual disappointment over Oakland's high school scores returned, with reading results slipping for high school sophomores from 17 percent proficient to 14 percent.

Elementary students throughout the Bay Area tended to progress faster than older students, even in low-income neighborhoods. In the Ravenswood City Elementary district, for example, many more children were proficient in reading and math than last year. In the second grade, for example, the number of students proficient in math jumped to 32 percent from last year's 17 percent.

In San Francisco, students in most grades improved in language arts and math, with some grades posting huge gains. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the district is "well on our way."

The state will not break out results for ethnic groups until next week. But district officials said they had seen scores for African Americans, Latinos and students learning English, and that they had improved at a higher rate than the district average.

The improvement extended to some of what had been the district's lowest- performing schools. At Alvarado Elementary in Noe Valley, for example, fourth- graders jumped to 60 percent proficient in language arts, up from 35 percent, and to 59 percent proficient in math from 24 percent.

"We had a wonderful increase this year," said Alvarado Principal David Weiner. "It wasn't just higher-income students. It was lower-income students, (disabled) students, African American students, Latino students."

He attributed much of the gain to a $60,000 state grant that let the school host a three-hour daily after-school program for its most struggling students.

Schools that Ackerman identified two years ago as needing extra support also posted gains in many areas. At Balboa High, for example, 12 percent of sophomores showed proficiency in general math -- last year, there were none.

Principal Patricia Gray said the district's extra support -- including experts who visit classrooms frequently -- has helped.

"You can't just say it's going to happen and will it to happen," Gray said. "You have to get the support."



The test measures students' knowledge of skills the State Board of Education want them to know. The full set of California's academic standards is available at www.cde.ca.gov/standards/

Grade 2: Reading

Read this sentence:

Freddy's puppy is nameless.

Nameless means the puppy:

A. knows its name B. has many names C. hears its name D. has no name .

Grade 5: Written and oral English Language Conventions

Read the following sentence.

The swimmers splattered water onto the bank of the swimming hole. Splattered is a word that consists of two words blended together. Which two words were blended to make the word splattered?

A. Slipped and shattered

B. Splashed and spattered

C. Slapped and clattered

D. Slopped and pattered .

Grade 8: Mathematics (Algebra I)

Which equation defines the line that contains the point (4, -3) and has a slope of 307?

A. x-2y= 10 B. x+2y= 10 C. 2x-y= 11 D. 2x+y= 5 .

Grades 9 to 11: Biology

In some seaweeds, iodine can be found in concentrations a thousand times higher than that of seawater. This concentration is most likely maintained by the action of the:

A. Golgi apparatus B. nucleus C. cell membrane D. lysomes .

Grade 11: History/Social Science-Standard 11.4

During the early 1920s, the United States attempted to reduce the threat of future wars by inviting other world powers to Washington conferences aimed at:

A. stopping the naval arms race

B. strengthening the League of Nations

C. setting World War I war debts

D. liberalizing international trade

Correct answers: D, B, A, C, A

Source: California Department of Education

— Nanette Asimov, Meredith May, Heather Knight
Impressive boost in state's school test scores
San Francisco Chronicle
August 16, 2003


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