NATIONAL CITY — When the latest state academic testing program was launched in 1998, National School District conformed to the expected pattern: low scores for children from poor neighborhoods and households where English isn’t spoken.
That’s why the test scores released Wednesday look so good. National School District’s latest reading scores are encouraging, not so much for where they are but for the direction they’re headed — like small but steady dividends during a bear market.
In third-through-fifth grades, National’s students still scored in the bottom third nationally on the reading portion of the Stanford 9 exam this year. But the second-graders’ percentile rank — how they score compared with test-takers nationwide — has nearly doubled since 1998. The other grades have made less dramatic but steady gains.
In 1998, the district’s average reading score for second-graders ranked in the 22nd percentile, meaning National’s students did worse than 78 percent of test-takers in a national sample. But poor, non-English-speaking children typically perform poorly on tests.
Nationwide, 29 percent of sample test takers were low-income and 1.8 percent non-English-speaking. In the National district, by comparison, nearly all students are from households with low-enough incomes to qualify for subsidized lunches, and 59 percent of the district’s 6,700 students don’t speak English.
Even so, National’s second-graders reached the 41st percentile this year.
What’s more, progress has been steady. For every grade tested in the National district — second through sixth — the reading scores went up in 1999, again in 2000 and yet again this year.
“I hope this means that they’re learning more,” said Superintendent George Cameron.
He thinks it does, he said, but acknowledged that some gains may come from students’ becoming familiar with the test format.
It’s also difficult to draw conclusions from year-to-year comparisons because they do not reflect the improvement or decline of the same students.
This year’s fourth-graders, for example, are not the same as last year’s.
Nor do the scores say anything about individual students’ performances.
However, the steady rise in all grades tells National’s leaders that things are moving in the right direction.
School board President Anne Campbell called the scores “a wonderful sign”
and said the National district goal is for students to score at the nationwide average.
The second-grade scores rose even as more non-English-speakers took the test. Typically these students score lower than fluent English speakers and bring down school and district averages.
Last year, hundreds of parents of non-English-speakers in National’s schools exercised their prerogative under state law to withdraw their children from testing. As a result, some of the district’s 10 elementary schools were disqualified from receiving state money for improved test scores because they didn’t test a high-enough percentage of their students.
This year, the district encouraged parents to let their kids participate,
whether they understood the questions or not, and 219 more second-graders took the test than last year. Most of the increase in students taking the test was because of the higher participation by non-English-speakers,
In recent years, the National district has done several things to improve its teaching of reading.
The foremost initiative has been more teacher training. In summer seminars,
teachers study theory on comprehension, phonics, spelling and book selection. Then during the year, the teachers are given time to meet and discuss what works and trade tips for better teaching.
“In this district our needs are so great that every teacher needs to be a reading specialist,” Cameron said.
National’s schools have continued bilingual education, but with a higher percentage of time spent in English instruction than in the past, Cameron said.
“I’m glad we’ve finally discovered it’s not going to hurt these kids,” he said.
Emma Vargas has seen a big difference in three years. She said her third-grader at John Otis Elementary School, who is a product of the increased emphasis on English, understands English better than her sixth-grader, who received more instruction in Spanish.
Cameron said more emphasis on English helps boosts scores on the English-language test.
And Vargas said the scores matter to parents.
“When we increase (the scores) by a good percentage, all the mothers say,
‘Yes, this is a good school,’ ” Vargas said.
New books galore
With the help of state library grant money, every classroom in the district has received more than 100 new books. In addition, the National City library has put many of its books on the shelves of school libraries and into classrooms.
“In a city such as National City, many children don’t have books and reading materials at home, so the more we can provide them with those kinds of things — books and other reading materials — the more they can practice the craft,” said Campbell, who is also the city librarian for National City.
Every new book has been labeled with a reading level. The labeling helps students to pick, and teachers to recommend, reading that isn’t so difficult as to frustrate students or so easy that it doesn’t push them to improve.
There’s also been an expansion of after-school programs. Among the after-school teachers are a literacy corps from the city library who offer 90 minutes of reading and language lessons daily.
Instruction continues during summer vacation, as it did in a class at Olivewood Elementary late last month.
Angel Pinto, 6, was getting ready for first grade by reading “El Patito Tito.” By his description, the book tells about a frog and a duck that go on a picnic together. He said he has trouble with “the big words and the long stories.”
He’s learning, he said, because the teacher “always makes us read when we come to school.”
The mix of strategies has contributed to scores higher than those of schools with similar levels of poverty and language barriers. Last year, Harbison and Lincoln Acres elementary schools ranked in the top fifth of all schools that shared their demographics statewide.
This year’s state public school rankings based on test scores won’t be released until October, but even before this year’s improvements, most of National’s schools were ranked higher than similar schools in other parts of the state.