Elementary Schools Show Gains on Test

Education: L.A. Unified students in grades 2 to 5 improve on state basic skills exam. Upper grades fare less well.

Los Angeles Unified elementary schools made strong gains on the Stanford 9 test for the third consecutive year, but the district’s high schools once again failed to improve, according to data released Tuesday.

Students in grades 2 to 5 showed consistent improvement on the state’s basic skills exam. That progress appeared to reach middle schools for the first time, where sixth-grade gains resembled those in the elementary schools.

Third-graders did best, moving up more than any grade level in math, reading, spelling and language skills.

Despite their rising scores on this multiple-choice test, L.A. Unified’s elementary students overall still rank in the bottom half of students nationally in reading and math. In some grades, they fall into the bottom third.

Still, officials expressed satisfaction that the results for elementary schools are moving in a positive direction.

“I am very pleased,” said Supt. Roy Romer, who credited the elementary improvement to a new focus on reading instruction and teacher training. “It says we are really truly making a difference.”

Romer and other district officials acknowledged the poor showing in the upper grades. Seventh- and eighth-graders made little, if any, improvement this year. High schools, meanwhile, stayed the same or lost ground. Ninth-graders, for example, saw their scores drop in reading and science.

District officials said the problem in secondary schools involves literacy skills. These campuses have legions of students who read far below grade level or are still learning English. The students have not benefited from concerted reading reforms in the elementary schools.

Officials said the district will focus anew on middle schools and high schools this fall, emphasizing teacher training in literacy and introducing teaching “coaches” to guide instructors in English and math classes.

High school administrators say they welcome the attention, given the demands of a curriculum that requires students to analyze everything from fiction to economics.

“There is no doubt that we need to concentrate on literacy at the secondary level. It’s absolutely essential,” said Principal Floria Anderson Trimble of Hollywood High School. “We have to do something so that these students are competitive academically.”

Despite the poor performance in the upper grades, L.A. Unified won high marks from testing experts for its consistent gains in elementary schools.

“I think the important thing is that the scores are going up year to year,” said Eva Baker, co-director of UCLA’s Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. “[That] means whatever programmatic changes taking place are showing up in some way.”

L.A. Unified released its test scores one day ahead of the state, which plans to post Stanford 9 results today on the Internet for California’s 8,000 public schools. The address ishttp://star.cde.ca.gov. Nearly 4.5 million students in grades 2 to 11 took the exam in the spring, the fourth year it has been given in California.

All students were tested in reading, math and language skills, and students through eighth grade also took a spelling test. Those in higher grades took additional exams in science and history-social science.

Students answered multiple-choice questions geared to the state’s new academic standards in English and language arts. Today’s scores will rate student performance on the standards.

L.A. Unified’s data offers a preview. Just 15% of Los Angeles second-graders were deemed to be at or above a “proficient” level on the English standards, meaning the students do not need special assistance beyond the regular classroom program.

At the same time, 28% of ninth-graders were considered “far below basic,” meaning they need intensive assistance beyond what they get in the classroom. Just 4% of eighth-graders were deemed “advanced.”

Based on a comparison with last year’s performance, L.A. Unified appears to be succeeding in raising the scores of its lowest-performing elementary school students–those at the “far below basic” level. The percentage of students in that category dropped, the data show.

“I think that is a notable accomplishment,” said Brian Stecher, a senior social scientist at Rand Corp. “You see progress among students at the very bottom.”

Teachers and principals attribute the rising elementary school scores to a combination of factors, including the state’s phasing out of bilingual education in favor of English instruction three years ago.

“Before, the children were floundering. They couldn’t speak English,” said Martha Trevino Powell, principal of Aldama Elementary in Highland Park. “Now they have a base.”

Powell and others also cited the effect of smaller classes and the introduction of Open Court, a heavily structured reading program that provides a daily script for teachers in primary grades of most schools. The program is especially useful in a district that has a high percentage of inexperienced teachers, Powell said.

The district introduced coaches in elementary schools last year to help train teachers in Open Court, which also requires regular assessments to gauge student progress.

L.A. Unified did not release data for individual schools or break out scores for students who are learning English. That information will be available today on the Internet.

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