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Sunday, August 24, 2008

California test scores are higher, but higher federal targets put more schools at risk

Latest results show L.A. schools improving at a faster rate than the state average but still lagging behind overall.

By Howard Blume and Sandra Poindexter | LA Times
August 15, 2008

Scores on state standardized tests took a step upward in annual results released Thursday, but that rise won't prevent more schools from failing federal targets that have become more difficult this year.

In Los Angeles, schools improved at a faster rate than in the state overall -- a familiar and hopeful pattern. But they also continued to lag behind the state average. And here, too, increasing federal standards will inevitably lead to more schools being categorized as unsuccessful.

Statewide, about 24.5% of elementary schools would have reached last year's federal standards but will probably fall short this year. That works out to almost 1,400 schools. More than 37% of middle schools -- or about 480 campuses -- face the same fate, according to a Times analysis. (A similar calculation could not be made for high schools, which have a different proficiency scale, because the state has not released the necessary data.)

The reason for the seeming decline is a rising bar for success. This year, to meet federal targets, the required percentage of students who must be proficient rose from 24.4% to 35.2% in English and from 26.5% to 37% in math. That means a school that met last year's standard would have one year to increase nearly by half the number of students proficient in English to stay on the plus side of accelerating federal expectations.

"We have to look at proficiency for all," said Ramon C. Cortines, senior deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, who defended the rising expectations but criticized the scale's steepness and inflexibility.

Key Elementary School in Anaheim met the federal targets last year and its scores rose in math and English this year, yet the school is at serious risk of falling below the new standard. Principal Charles Lewis wants to escape being labeled a failing school: "We feel confident we're doing excellent work, and we'd like to not have that hanging over our head."

In Gardena, 135th Street Elementary also met its federal targets last year and improved this year. Principal Antonio Jose Camacho talks proudly of his teachers and the coaches who assist them. They not only work in teams to improve lesson strategies, he said, but discuss how to help individual students in a high-poverty school that operates year-round because of overcrowding.

"We may just miss the cut," Camacho said. "But we just need to keep focused on what our task is. Even though we've improved, it's still not acceptable that only 35% of fifth-graders are reading proficiently."

Schools that don't keep pace ultimately face sanctions that could include replacing faculty and administration, measures the state has been reluctant to impose. But unless there is relief at the federal level, more schools every year are almost certain to become "substandard" as federal targets rise sharply until 2014, when nearly every student is expected to be academically proficient under the No Child Left Behind law.

Pasadena Supt. Edwin Diaz said the federal system could do harm by damaging morale at schools: "It's a huge issue."

The state won't issue federal accountability reports for about two weeks. The Times was able to preview the trend by analyzing Thursday's release of the California Standards Tests, on which the federal rating will be based.

Steady progress

State officials chose to accentuate the positive in the STAR tests. In English, the percentage of California students who scored proficient or better rose from 43% to 46%. Math proficiency scores increased from 41% to 43%.

In L.A. Unified, scores rose three percentage points in English, to 34%, and four percentage points in math, to 35%.

"For the sixth year in a row, California students are continuing to make solid, steady progress," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell during a news conference at a Pasadena school. "We still have a lot of work to do to reach our goal of universal proficiency, but this year's gains are particularly encouraging."

Over those six years -- which is when the state's tests were fully based on California curriculum -- the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced increased by 11 percentage points in English, from 35% to 46%. In math, scores rose eight percentage points, from 35% to 43%.

During that same period, L.A. Unified has gained 10 percentage points in reading and nine in math.

But only 28% of seventh-graders tested as proficient in math this year and 29% of 10th-graders were proficient in English.

Scores went up at Maclay Middle School in Pacoima, but still only 16% of students tested as proficient in English. At Jefferson High in South Los Angeles, English scores rose 85% in one year. But that still left 88% of students below proficiency in English.

Maclay and Jefferson didn't meet federal standards last year and were never realistically in the running this year.

At the state level, California met its federal target last year for every group of students except those with disabilities. And even that group nearly met the former standard. This year, the state is likely to fall short for African Americans, Latinos, English learners and students from low-income families -- even though each of these groups scored better than last year.

Troubling gap persists

By any standard, a yawning achievement gap persists between test scores of white and Asian students and their Latino and African American peers. As he has before, O'Connell said that closing the gap is a social, economic and moral imperative.

In that regard, the state should have made more progress, said Russlynn Ali, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based research and advocacy organization.

"Indeed, with time, the narrowing of achievement gaps between groups slows in the elementary grades, stops in middle school, and then begins to widen again in high school," Ali said in a statement.

The California Assn. for Bilingual Education castigated O'Connell's department for the widening achievement gap facing English learners. Among other measures, the association demanded thousands of more qualified instructors.

Support for O'Connell's efforts came from Debra Watkins, who heads the California Alliance of African American Educators. She added that self-help had to be part of the solution. "We have been almost passive in our allowing of other people to educate our children," Watkins said. "The community of African Americans themselves are beginning to very much mobilize behind this issue."

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