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California Test Scores Up Statewide for Fifth Year

Ohanian note: The contrasting headlines, not to mention the articles, from CA newspapers is telling:

LA Daily News: "Nearly Half of Schools in State Miss Mark."

San Francisco Chronicle: "Impressive Boost in State's School Test Scores."

Whether the cup is half full or half empty depends on who's spinning the story.

Latino and poor students have begun to slowly catch up academically to other students in California as the overall performance on state tests improved for the fifth year in a row, state education leaders said Friday.

The 2003 Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, test results, released Friday, show that students made a second year of gains on the California Standards Test, with more students proving they mastered the skills the state wants them to know in most subjects and grade levels.

Schools are under pressure from both state and federal laws to improve test scores and erase the disparities among students of different economic, ethnic and language backgrounds. If they fail, they could be subject to increasingly severe sanctions and intervention.

Latino, Asian and low-income children in California appear to have improved at a slightly faster rate than students as a whole, said Bob Anderson, administrator of testing at the state Department of Education.

The jump in Latino students who reached the proficient or advanced level in math and English was about 1 to 2 percentage points higher than students overall. Asian students, some of whom are recent immigrants, made even larger gains. In addition, poor students improved consistently faster in math from second to seventh grades, Anderson said.

Black students, however, did not appear to improve any faster than other students, he said.

Anderson suggested that some groups have benefited from a statewide focus on improving instruction for students whose first language is not English. Students are learning English at a faster pace, and it is helping them in all subjects, he said.

The full breakdown of test scores among economic and ethnic student groups will be released Monday.

"Today we see another indication that the achievement gap is closing," said Kerry Mazzoni, the governor's top education aide. "It will not close overnight, but it would be a crime to stop doing what we're doing."

The performance of 4.6 million California students tested last spring was high enough for nearly 55 percent of the state's schools to make adequate progress on a new federal measure of student achievement, up from 32 percent in 2002.

Far fewer middle and high schools reached their federal goal than elementary schools this year, however.

In the Times' coverage area -- including Contra Costa County, the Tri-Valley, Albany, Benicia and Vallejo -- 45 percent of schools met their targets, up from just 20 percent last year.

Gov. Gray Davis, defending himself against a recall attempt, touted the gains as proof that he has followed through on his pledge to make education his top priority.

He attributed the gains partially to the state's accountability system and a $6.9 billion investment to improve schools under his tenure, including money for textbooks, teacher training, computers and extra instruction for struggling students.

"This is a team effort, but at the end of the day we all have one thing in mind -- investing in young minds, young minds who will grow up to be productive adults, adults who will pay us back many times," he said.

But one national opponent of standardized testing said the state's testing system is politically driven and not a meaningful assessment of student progress.

"It may tell us that the schools are spending less time giving students the critical thinking skills they need to do well in college and life, and more time on test preparation," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, based in Cambridge, Mass.

"It's not what parents want. It's not what society needs."

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, all students must reach a proficient or advanced level, showing mastery of grade level standards, in math and English by 2014.

No school in California has reached that level, but the state has set yearly goals for schools to meet to help them get there.

This year, the state targets are modest, with at least 9.6 percent to 16 percent of students required to score at the proficient level, depending on the subject and the type of school. But the state will rapidly ramp up the goals starting in 2006 until all schools are required to reach 100 percent.

Schools must reach the performance goals in all subgroups of students, and 95 percent of students must take the tests to meet the federal guidelines for improvement, called "Adequate Yearly Progress."

Schools that receive targeted federal money to help poor students but fail to reach their targets for two years will be required to pay transportation costs of students who want to transfer to better schools, with more severe consequences the longer the schools fail to improve.

By the seventh year, the school would be completely restructured, with options including reopening as a charter, replacing all or most of the staff members, bringing in outside managers or being taken over by the state.

Gail Mendes, a teacher at Bayview Elementary School in San Pablo, which failed to make adequate progress under the new rules this year, said the federal measure is unfair. She finds it hard to believe that lawmakers are serious about closing the achievement gap when school funding has dropped.

"All of society is now looking to educators to solve the problems we have with children and poverty," said Mendes, who serves as vice president of the United Teachers of Richmond.

"We don't give them good prenatal care. We don't give them good medical care when they're little. We don't give them a proper diet. We don't give support to families. And then they go to school and we expect them to be equal to all the children who've had that support. And if they aren't, we blame it on the school system."

Seven Pittsburg schools that receive federal funds for poor students failed to meet the federal requirements, largely because their participation rate fell below 95 percent. Low participation rates prevented 60 schools in Contra Costa County from making their federal goals.

"Using their measuring stick, we are failing. But if you break it down to the actual scores, there were some pockets of real success," said Pittsburg school board President Ruben Rosalez.

Rosalez noted that although there were some pockets of success for Latino students, the scores still showed that local Latino and black students lagged behind their peers.

The Mt. Diablo school district's research and evaluation director, Bob Rayborn, said he also did not notice a faster gain among groups that lag in test scores.

"We haven't seen a closing of the gap yet," he said. "We see the same relative positions, which is a disappointment to us because we've done a lot to address that issue."

— Suzanne Pardington
School scores up statewide for fifth year
Cooperative Living Online Magazine
August 16, 2003


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