Test scores raise hopes

Statewide exam: Governor, schools chief differ in interpretation of results.

SACRAMENTO — About half of California’s English-speaking elementary school students posted reading scores at or just below the national average on the new state achievement exam Tuesday, raising hopes that the state’s public schools may be on the upswing after years in the cellar on national exams.

Scores were even better in language across the board and slightly lower in math but dropped considerably in spelling and high school reading, science and social science.

In dueling news conferences, state schools chief Delaine Eastin and Gov. Pete Wilson offered radically different interpretations of initial results from the Statewide Testing and Reporting system (STAR), California’s first statewide examination in four years.

The state was barred by court order from its original plan of releasing the scores of limited-English-speaking students.

The scores are “much better than the doomsayers had predicted,” Eastin said, beaming. Flanked by superintendents and administrators from across the state, she used Tuesday’s announcement as an opportunity to push for more funding for education.

“Most people should be surprised that California’s students did as well as they did, given the abysmal condition of California schools,” she said. “Think of what we would see if we supported our children like other states do.”

Governor disagrees

Minutes later in a separate news briefing, the governor’s press secretary accused Eastin of sugarcoating the results.

And in a later conference call with reporters, Wilson said Eastin’s push for more funding would not solve California’s educational woes.

“I think it is a very sad thing when the superintendent tries to defend these scores as acceptable,” Wilson said. “They are so bad they are probably dragging down the national score.”

But testing experts — many of whom predicted California would fare poorly compared to a national sample — said that statewide, California’s numbers are not bad.

Joan Herman of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing said that the scores released Tuesday appear to cast California in a more favorable light than national tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress tests, where California kids did poorly.

“To have half the kids at or above the median certainly is more positive than other indicators,” she said.

Herman, who is based at the University of California-Los Angeles, added that it’s important for the public to understand that the real test of California schools will be how students fare in subsequent years now that baseline scores have been established. A total of 4,128,022 were tested as part of the STAR program. Nearly 81 percent of the scores were reported Tuesday.

The state had initially planned to release more comprehensive school-by-school and district-by-district data, but a court order last week, temporarily barring the department from releasing the scores of students who don’t speak English fluently, forced the department to scrap that plan.

That order was upheld by the First District Court of Appeal, delaying any state publication of the scores of students with limited English at least until a hearing July 16.

Confusion over scores

Some counties and districts, not bound by the court order, also released scores Tuesday. And the different ways each agency chose to report the scores immediately led to confusion. The state report, available on the department’s Web site athttp://www.cde.ca.gov, shows what percentage of students scored above the national average. The Santa Clara County Office of Education figures assign students a percentile ranking.

State department of education officials are still unsure what further information they’ll be able to release.

“We have had people in here for weeks busting their butts to get this information out,” said Gerry Shelton, a consultant with the department’s testing and assessment branch. “We’ve got people a little frustrated that all their work isn’t going out there. We’re putting out as much information as we can.”

Wilson said the lawsuits were simply a smoke screen.

“We do not have scores for LEP kids and I think that is very sad and a real disservice to those children,” he said. “The lawsuits to avoid reporting the scores is nothing less than a desperate coverup of the failure to educate limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. If there was any doubt for the need for Proposition 227 (the initiative to eliminate bilingual education), this coverup should remove it.”

Program controversial

The testing program has been controversial since the governor first proposed it during last summer’s budget negotiations and demanded that all students, including those who speak little or no English, be tested. In March, San Francisco Unified School District filed suit against the state and won an exemption from testing its limited-English-speaking students.

Even as they caution the public against making snap judgments based on a single set of test scores, educators know much is riding on the first statewide exam given to California public school students since 1994.

Although many in education believe the scores are an imperfect yardstick, it’s the only one the state has. Districts may do myriad assessments during the year, but none offers statewide and district-by-district scores.

According to the data released Tuesday, California’s students fared well in reading and language arts, with about half scoring at or just a few points below the national average.

But there were other quirks in the data. Even though reading scores at the high school level were significantly lower than those at the elementary and middle school levels, high school students fared better in history and social science, where reading is considered crucial for success. Eastin said the lower scores may reflect that those students did not receive phonics-based reading instruction.

At the primary grade level, scores of third-graders — those most likely to benefit from California’s recent two years of smaller classes — did not show any significant gains over students in other grades.

Marian Bergeson, the governor’s secretary of child development and education, offered no concrete explanation for the primary scores but said she expects those numbers to go up in subsequent years.

The commercial test used by the state, testing giant Harcourt Brace’s Stanford 9, is a multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble exam. It was selected by the state board of education against the wishes of Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, who felt another exam was more appropriate.

Eastin to uphold law

But Tuesday, Eastin put all that behind her, saying that she would uphold the law and stressing the importance of having a single statewide exam.

In testing lingo, this set of scores is considered a baseline. While the results offer educators some information about how students are faring, they are only a snapshot. Not until a district has several years of data can it begin to track trends in student achievement, said Robert Linn, professor of education at the University of Colorado and one of the nation’s leading testing experts.

Testing experts say it also is important to keep in mind the type of information tests like the SAT-9 provide. On tests like SAT-9, known by educators as a norm reference test, a set of exams from a select group of students is scored. From that, the publisher determines a midpoint and ranks student scores based on that midpoint. Thus the ranking is less about whether an individual third-grader has mastered reading than about how well that student reads compared to a select group of third-graders across the nation.

`A good exercise’

Said Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers: “Call this year’s test a good exercise but not necessarily indicative of what’s happening in a real classroom.”

Many local school districts already have begun sending parents results, which by law must be mailed within 20 days after a district receives results. Berryessa and Campbell have all added STAR question and answer sections to their Web sites. San Jose Unified, the county’s largest district, released its scores on Tuesday.

Students in San Jose Unified scored at or above the national average in most areas. Most students in the district scored above the national average in all areas in the fifth, sixth, seventh, ninth and 11th grades and most areas for the remaining grades. In most areas, the district also scored better than the statewide average.

Like their counterparts at the state department of education, local officials caution the public against making snap judgments.

“It’s just not a fair comparison,” said Bill Garrison, who oversees testing for the Milpitas Unified School District, noting that many non-English-speaking students who might not have been tested in previous years sat for the exam.

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