California Students Gain, but Still Lag
Test scores rise again, but not enough to bring public schools in line with federal standards.
By Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin
Although California public school students showed promising gains on math and English tests last spring, less than half were proficient in the two subjects and unable to meet the achievement goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind education law, the state Education Department reported Monday.
Students in grades two through 11 have steadily increased their test scores over the last four years, progress that officials attribute to a strong focus on academic standards in classroom instruction.
The pace of the students' improvement, however, has not come quickly enough for all schools to keep up with requirements in the federal law — a looming problem particularly for campuses that serve predominantly Latino and African American students, whose test scores remain far below those of their white and Asian peers.
The No Child Left Behind law requires all students to be proficient in English and math within a decade. Schools that repeatedly fail to bring enough students to the proficient level can face sanctions, including the removal of principals and teachers.
The proficiency hurdle was underscored by The Times analysis that found only incremental gains among California sixth-graders — the first crop of students who were tested each year since assessment of the standards began five years ago.
In some of California's largest urban school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, last year's sixth-grade classes saw math achievement levels decline over the two previous years, the analysis found.
Still, education officials said they were pleased with the overall upward movement in test scores among the state's more than 4.8 million test takers and with the fact that more students were taking exams geared to college preparatory math and science classes.
"Public education is on the right track in the state of California," Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said during a news conference Monday at a Los Angeles elementary school. "Our school system is clearly moving in the right direction."
But O'Connell and other educators acknowledged a pronounced proficiency problem in high schools, where the percentage of students skilled in algebra and geometry dropped last spring from levels three years earlier. State officials attributed that to an increase in the numbers of students taking more advanced math classes, including algebra, a new state graduation requirement.
The test scores showed other potential trouble:
• As students move up to the next grade, smaller percentages of them reach the proficient level in math. For example, 56% of second-graders met that target in math last spring, but only 40% of sixth-graders and 17% of 10th-graders also reached the proficient mark.
• Students with special needs — who are not exempt from taking the tests under the education law — had the lowest skill levels: Just 16% of special education students, and 12% of those still learning English, were proficient in English-language arts last spring.
• The wide achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups has changed little, if at all, over the last five years. Sixty-five percent of Asian students and 51% of white students were proficient in math last spring, compared with 27% of Latinos and 23% of African Americans.
Education groups that monitor the gap said they were not surprised by the latest results, given the dearth of qualified teachers in schools that serve minority and low-income students.
"We give poor kids and kids of color fewer dollars to get the job done," said Russlynn Ali, director of the Education Trust-West, an advocacy organization in Oakland devoted to closing the achievement gap. "We give them less access to rigorous course work and we turn around and get poor test results."
Urban school leaders acknowledged the gap and called for a renewed focus to close it.
Still, urban school principals and teachers said rising test scores were cause for celebration.
Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest school system, made gains at nearly every grade level in English and math, with the most impressive jumps in elementary schools.
In grades two through five, for example, the number of Los Angeles students at or above the math proficiency level jumped between 14 and 20 percentage points over the last three years. The district's improvements, in many cases, outpaced state averages, helping to drive California's upward trajectory.
District Supt. Roy Romer touted the elementary grades at the morning news conference, comparing the district to a company with a rising stock price.
"We are building a base that is going to carry us through," Romer said. "Nobody thought five years ago that we could have pulled this off."
Like many other states, California has established in recent years a system of standards instruction. The standards specify what students should know in each subject at every grade level.
For example, second-graders must be able to understand common synonyms and antonyms, while seventh-graders must show they can add and subtract fractions.
Annual tests that measure students' knowledge of the English-language arts standards were first given five years ago; similar math tests followed a year later. Standards exams for science and history also have been instituted. The results determine whether schools meet the No Child Left Behind requirements.
State leaders said California's academic standards are among the most challenging in the nation, an assertion supported by independent groups that have analyzed the guidelines.
The state's schools have shown progress toward meeting the standards in recent years, a pattern that was repeated last spring when schools posted significant gains.
For example, 54% of California's third-graders reached the proficient level in math last spring, a 16-percentage point jump from three years ago. In English-language arts, 43% of ninth-graders were proficient last spring, a 15-percentage point increase over four years earlier.
But the test scores also foreshadowed how difficult it will be for schools to meet the federal law's requirement that all students be proficient by 2013-14; O'Connell noted that only two of California's 9,000 schools had so far met the federal mark for 100% proficiency.
For many urban campuses, the difficulty was math, with fewer students reaching the proficient level as they moved through elementary school, The Times' analysis showed.
Principals and officials in several districts said they were not surprised that students struggled in math as they finished elementary school, saying that teachers have little specialized training to deal with material that goes from basic addition and subtraction to more abstract concepts.
"There is a need to bring in trained teachers and increase the training for our current teachers," said Rob Samples, principal of Wilton Place Elementary School in Koreatown. "It is a challenge."
Pat Chandler, assistant superintendent for education services in the Moreno Valley Unified School District, said the small increases seen over the last four years by last year's sixth-graders were anticipated.
"What needs to be done is for policymakers to realize that making significant changes such as these content standards and the testing of them — it's going to be slow, incremental growth," Chandler said. "It's not going to be a huge leap forward."
Moreno Valley also saw math proficiency plummet among secondary school students. The district plans to beef up teacher training and recently bought new textbooks that are more aligned with the state's standards.
"Math is a hard subject and the kids find it difficult, and all of them are now expected to take algebra," Chandler said.
Students must pass algebra to earn a diploma. The subject is part of the state's high school exit exam, a new graduation requirement for the class of 2006.
On Monday, the state released test results for the exam that showed 88% of the 2006 class passed the math section, which is geared to eighth-grade standards, and 88% passed the English-language arts portion, pegged to ninth- and 10th-grade levels.
Students are allowed to take the test multiple times. The state could not say what percentage of students passed both sections of the test; those figures are due out next month from an outside evaluator.
The passing rates were higher for white and Asian students than for Latino and African American students. Similarly, just 51% of special education students passed the math test, while 65% of students new to English passed the English exam.
Using district data, Los Angeles officials reported Monday that 69% of the class of 2006 have passed both sections of the exit exam.
Fifteen percent of the class — about 5,500 students — still need to pass both the math and English sections. On top of that, 2,000 students must pass the language arts section and 3,700 students are still falling short on math.
Times staff writers Erika Hayasaki, Seema Mehta and Doug Smith and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
California students in grades two through 11 showed overall improvement in this year's standardized tests.
Scoring proficient or better
Source: California Dept. of Education
Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin
Los Angeles Times
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