Students throughout Los Angeles and California scored higher on Stanford 9 tests than they did last year, with fluent English speakers and those still learning the language posting modest gains in results issued Thursday.
Release of the closely watched scores capped three weeks of delay caused by mistakes made by the test’s publisher, Harcourt Educational Measurement. Even as they announced the results, state officials said other problems with the results could still appear.
For now, the scores on the tests, which are central to California’s educational reforms, show improvement in most grade levels and academic skills.
California students still ranked below national average in almost all subjects and grades tested, and Los Angeles students lagged even farther behind. But scores for California children with limited English skills rose in most grade levels. And composite scores for fluent English speakers topped the national average in all elementary and middle school grades.
“California students are doing better,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. “It’s nice to have something to celebrate.”
The broad, modest gains were reflected within the Los Angeles Unified School District, where most grades tested topped last year’s scores and none posted a decline.
But Los Angeles students continued to score well below state and national levels. Local eighth-grade students, for example, achieved the district’s highest average for reading, reaching just the 30th national percentile. The statewide average was 46.
“We’ve got to try to bring every kid up to at least the 50th percentile,” said school board member Valerie Fields. “Reading is the most important score we can look at, because if youngsters can’t read adequately, they won’t do well in other subjects.”
Math scores showed the greatest improvement in Los Angeles, increasing between one and five percentile points in grades two through 11.
Perhaps no scores drew more attention, however, than test results for children still learning English. In June, individual districts throughout the state began reporting enormous gains in those students’ scores. Backers of Proposition 227, the ballot measure that all but ended bilingual education in California, immediately seized the results as vindication.
But those results had been inflated, state officials said Thursday, by mistakes the test’s publisher made in counting those children, one of several glitches that delayed the full release of test scores. Instead, scores for children with limited English skills rose at roughly the same rate as the rest of California’s students.
“I honestly think it’s hard to glean any conclusions about Prop. 227 from these scores,” Eastin said. “It’s really too early to either celebrate or throw stones.”
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote the initiative, saw the results differently. His own analysis showed scores for students still learning English rose 21 percent in math and spelling, 18 percent in reading.
“That’s unheard of for an educational reform,” he said. “Just to give you an example, class-size reduction just improved scores 6 (percent) or 7 percent after three years.”
Prop. 227 foes and state officials, however, noted that many of those dramatic increases came because the scores for English learners were very low to begin with, meaning that any increase would look like a large percentage increase. Theresa Fay-Bustillos of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said that while she was pleased to see improvement in the scores of kids with limited English skills, the rise seemed to be part of the increase for all kids, especially in elementary school.
“What it really shows is there is something going on in California at the lower grades, and it’s premature and opportunistic for Ron Unz to take credit for it,” she said.
Just what caused those increases remains open to interpretation. Eastin credited many of the education reforms enacted in California during the last two years. Los Angeles school officials wondered if reading intervention programs helped boost scores, although those programs were started shortly before the tests were given, board member Julie Korenstein said.
Part of the increase may also come from students and teachers adjusting to the test, which has now been offered statewide for two years. Scores on a test typically increase during the first few years it is offered, said Gerry Shelton, an administrator in the state’s testing program.
Los Angeles school officials are still examining the scores and hope to have a more in-depth analysis within the next three weeks, said Liliam Castillo, the district’s deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
“It could be that school scores went up because they did a tremendous job of instruction,” she said. “Or maybe they went up because they had a different bunch of kids.”
State officials said on Thursday they could not guarantee that the test scores would prove error-free, even though the glitches found in the last three weeks have been corrected for most school districts. Eastin pointed to a drop throughout California in reading test scores between eighth and ninth grades, and said that since other states have noticed the same decline, there may be a problem built into the test.
“We think the problem could be something to do with their research, if every state is seeing a precipitous drop between eighth and ninth grades and there’s nothing to account for it,” she said.
Despite those problems, she said, the state should continue to use the Stanford 9 test and pressure Harcourt Educational Measurement to correct its errors. The company receives $22 million for administering the test for 1,055 public school districts in California. The test, she said, is too important to the state’s education reform efforts to ditch.
“We have started down this path,” she said. “For now we must have year to year results. . . . I honestly believe Harcourt is going to get its act together. This is the biggest state in the union, and I don’t think they want to lose this contract.”
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