Friday, August 17, 2007

Student scores level off in state

The leveling off spurs concern. Also troubling are lagging results by the state's black and Latino students.
By Joel Rubin and Seema Mehta
The Los Angeles Times
August 16, 2007

California public school students posted small or no gains on standardized test scores last spring, raising concerns about a leveling off of previous achievement increases and continuing debate about the disparities between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers.

Statewide, 41% of students reached the "advanced" or "proficient" level in math and 43% in English on standardized tests -- scores that marked no movement from last year in math and only a one-point rise in English, according to results released Wednesday by the state Education Department.

By contrast, students' scores had jumped 7 percentage points in both subjects in the previous two years. The results, researchers said, could be the beginning of a plateau in achievement levels that often comes after initial gains.

State officials had hoped the latest round of scores would provide more strong evidence to support their efforts to raise educational standards and accountability through testing. Sounding a more subdued note than in previous years, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell turned particular attention on the comparisons between racial groups.

"This year's results offer both encouragement and reason for serious concern . . . But the data also show the persistent achievement gaps in our system that California simply cannot afford to accept -- morally, economically, or socially," O'Connell said.

The learning chasm that separates white and Asian students from Latinos and blacks is not new -- or unique to California -- and stands as one of the most troubling issues facing the country's public school systems. In California, white students cross the proficiency threshold at about twice the rate as Latinos and blacks in math and English -- a gap that has remained virtually unchanged over the last five years, since the current assessment program began.

But O'Connell ratcheted up the debate Wednesday. Educators and civic leaders, he said, must break the commonly held assumption that Latino and black students' low scores are due largely to the effects of poverty. For the first time, O'Connell compiled statistics that showed black and Latino students who are not designated as poor are performing below white students who are at or near the poverty level.

"These are not just economic achievement gaps; they are racial achievement gaps," he said. "We cannot afford to excuse them; they simply must be addressed."

O'Connell emphasized the economic toll that the growing ranks of poorly educated minorities could have on California. "I really do believe that the biggest threat to our ability as a state to remain the sixth- or seventh-largest economy in the world is to make sure is that these [groups of students] are prepared to become contributing members in our workforce."

Russlynn Ali, executive director of Education Trust-West, a public policy group that focuses on school reform, praised O'Connell for making the distinction between race and economics, saying she hopes it will lead to reforms aimed at improving resources and instruction for minority students regardless of their economic class.

Studies on teacher quality conducted by the group, for example, found that poor white students often have better access to more experienced, educated teachers than wealthier black and Latino students, Ali said.

"So often people think this is about poverty, but it's not just about the damage that poverty inflicts," she said.

The standardized tests, which include science and history in some grades, are aligned to the state's curricular goals and given to students in grades two through 11. Individual student scores will be sent to their homes.

The scores will be used later this month to help determine the ranking of every school in the state under the Academic Performance Index, which forms the foundation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Under that education measure, California must raise all students to the proficient level or above by 2013.

The 710,000-student Los Angeles Unified, by far the state's largest district, produced a muddied, mixed set of gains and setbacks among various grades and demographic groups.

Ninth-graders, for example, posted strong gains, with 25% more students scoring at proficient or higher and 40% fewer students than last year languishing in the "far below basic" category in English. But in grades six and seven, English scores declined after several years of slow improvements. The only unequivocal success came in the early elementary grades, where the district made progress -- albeit meager in places -- across the board.

Girls, meanwhile, performed several percentage points better than boys and, broadly speaking, L.A. Unified fared similarly to other urban districts such as San Francisco and Oakland.

The performance of the nearly 265,000 students in L.A. Unified who are struggling to learn English as a second language remained troubling, with most of them scoring either "below basic" or "far below basic" on language arts tests.

The district's weak track record in teaching these English learners has become a matter of sharp scrutiny. Last month, school board President Monica Garcia and board member Yolie Flores Aguilar sponsored a measure ordering district staff to redesign how these students are taught and their teachers are trained.

Overall, L.A. Unified improved at a faster clip than the state as a whole but remained well below California averages. Fewer than one out of every three Los Angeles students scored at or above proficient in English and only 28% did so in math. And hundreds of thousands of students in the district remained stuck at the bottom ranks of the exams.

"We've still got some real heavy lifting to do," Supt. David L. Brewer said. Along with improving instruction for English learners, Brewer emphasized that the district needs to better support failing schools, but it must also set clear, strict goals and hold school staffs responsible for meeting them.

The year's results present Brewer with a starting point of sorts. A retired Navy vice admiral, Brewer took over the district about nine months ago and is under considerable pressure to improve instruction, especially at middle and high schools. Any improvements or declines next year will be laid at Brewer's feet.

Capistrano Unified, a high-achieving Orange County district, showed spotty gains, flat lines and small dips over various grades in English and math proficiency between. In earlier years, students had made far larger gains. Similarly, in Santa Ana Unified, the state's fifth-largest district, growth at early grade levels outpaced the state but were slower than previous years' results.

Michelle Benham, Capistrano's executive director for assessment and research, compared the slowdown to a young child's learning curve.

"I have a toddler. The concepts she's gaining right now are huge," Benham said. "I wish she could continue to learn as much in the next 10 years of her life that she's learned in the first three."

Researchers said it would not be surprising to see this year's leveling-off of statewide results continue in coming years. The earlier gains came about partly as teachers grew more familiar with the tests and so better prepared their students, but replicating the significant jumps year after year becomes increasingly difficult, said Christy Kim Boscardin, a senior researcher at UCLA's National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.

Such a trend would mirror what is occurring in other states, said Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley who led a recent national study on education accountability systems.

"California's consistent with what we're seeing around the country; nationwide, state test scores have begun to level off," he said. "The good news is we saw marked progress in [prior years] but the bad news is that the earlier buoyancy has largely faded."

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