Ventura County students score well on test

Those with limited English skills make strides; more needed.

Ventura County students scored well above the state average on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, with limited-English students showing a slight gain over last year, according to results released Thursday.

Still, the scores showed the state needs to make substantial progress to raise the scores of both economically disadvantaged and limited-English students, which educators say is critical to the success of Gov. Gray Davis’ education reforms.

Experts also warned that it would be premature to conclude that the slight gain in scores of limited-English students means Proposition 227 has succeeded.

“It is really too early for anybody to either celebrate or throw stones,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. “There needs to be a lot more research done at this point.”

Across the state, scores for students learning English were up in almost every grade in all subjects.

The results had been delayed for three weeks because Harcourt Educational Measurement, which publishes the national test of basic skills for grades second through 11th, mistakenly lumped 250,000 students who are newly proficient in English with English learners, and miscounted 190,000 students in year-round schools. Scores for year-round schools in three districts are still not corrected.

Backers of Proposition 227, which aimed to end bilingual education in California, hailed those results, arguing they prove that children learn — and test — better when they are taught in English.

“Districts that most closely followed 227 posted the highest gains,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who wrote the proposition. “If it wasn’t 227, what was it?”

But educators and researchers disagreed because there were too many variables in how schools carried out the proposition, which voters passed in June 1998.

“Different districts interpreted Proposition 227 differently,” said Marilyn Green, coordinator of special projects for Moorpark schools. “That makes it awfully difficult to compare.”

Proposition 227 allowed parents to sign waivers placing their children in traditional bilingual classes, rather than English immersion classes. In Ventura County, 60 percent of parents in the Oxnard School District applied for the waiver; in Fillmore Unified, by contrast, only 2 percent did.

Eastin seeks to raise scores for California students to the national average on the Stanford 9, although many of the scores now fall slightly below that. Students are ranked on a scale from 1 to 99 with the 50th percentile being the national average.

But if California scores fall largely in the 40th to 50th percentile, Ventura County’s tended to rate above that. For both, though, showing major gains depends partly on their ability to raise scores of students who are most likely to perform poorly on standardized tests — those with limited English and those from low-income families. Roughly one-fourth of the students in the state are low-income and perhaps a third are from families where the first language is not English, said Russell W. Rumberger, professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“The state of California will never improve as a whole very well if it doesn’t address the needs of those two groups,” he said.

The scores show the disparity: About one-fifth of the California third-graders receiving free and reduced-price school lunches scored at or above the national average in reading, while 41 percent of all students did so.

In Ventura County, the disparity was worse. The scores showed that 23 percent of economically disadvantaged students scored at the midpoint or above in reading, compared with 53 percent of all students.

Limited-English students had lower marks on the Stanford test, which is given only in English. Ten percent to 13 percent of them scored at or above the national average in reading in grades third through eighth in Ventura County, while 53 percent to 57 percent of all students did so.

Eight percent to 12 percent of California’s limited-English students made the reading mark in grades third through eighth. More than 40 percent of all the state’s students did so.

Results to affect rankings

Testing specialists warned against using the exam results to show the quality of a school’s academic program because so many other factors can affect test scores — including adjusting the school curriculum to fit the test, changes in a school’s enrollment and providing a quiet environment in which to take the test. Still, they acknowledge that the scores will be critical in the state accountability system that is about to get under way.

Scores from this year and 1998 will form the major basis for the first ranking of public schools due in November. Schools will be expected to show improvement between that ranking and succeeding years — those that consistently fail risk takeover.

And Davis will be jump-starting his accountability drive with a program designed to assist what are being called underperforming schools. These are schools that fall in the lower half of all public schools in California, based on the percentage of students scoring at or above the 50th percentile on the Stanford 9.

The state is looking for 430 schools to volunteer, but will draft others if enough don’t step up. Pat McCabe, who is managing the program, expects the schools to be selected in August. Each will receive a planning grant of $50,000 and up to $200 for each student to implement improvements.

The Oxnard School District plans to involve some of its schools, but has not selected them. But the Fillmore Unified School District is taking a wait-and-see posture until the state more clearly spells out what’s involved.

“Our problem is there’s been no clarity of what’s involved in this thing,” Superintendent Mario Contini said.

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