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California test scores: LA Unified, state schools gain in English, math*

California education officials released standardized test scores Friday that showed overall statewide gains in English, math.
California education officials released standardized test scores Friday that showed overall statewide gains in English, math.

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Schools statewide made overall gains on the annual standardized test results released Friday, doing more with less, as California has continued to slash education funding, forcing program cuts and thousands of teacher layoffs.

You can find out how your school district did on KPCC's interactive graphic map.

At the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest district and the second-largest in the nation, student performance in English-Language Arts improved by 4 percentage points from last year, with 48 percent proficient or better. In math, that number went up 2 percentage points from last year to 45 percent.

Statewide, that trend was repeated with slightly smaller gains: Students taking the English-Language Arts test section improved 3 percentage points to 57 percent proficient or better. In math, that number grew by 1 percentage point to 51 percent.

"In less than a decade we've gone from having only about one student in three score as proficient or better to now having one student out of two,” said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the California Department of Education. “That's nearly 900,000 more students reaching proficiency now than when we started this system back in 2003. Obviously, there's still work to do there, ... but a great deal of progress has been made.”

Scores ran the gamut in L.A County. (You can see the results on maps divided by district here.) La Canada Unified School District came in at the top with nearly 92 percent proficient or better in English-Language Arts and 87 percent in math. The district tied with San Marino Unified in math.

"We're very proud of our performance, and our teachers, community and all the support that contributed to these high scores," said Lindi Dreibelbis, director of assessment for La Canada Unified School District.

The Compton Unified School District, on the other hand, struggled with an overall 36 percent proficient or better in English-Language Arts and nearly 39 percent in math. Lynwood Unified School District was nearly 49 percent proficient or better in English-Language Arts, but 34 percent in math. 

Test results delayed

The release of test scores was delayed by several weeks because of a security breach during testing when students at a dozen schools posted some of the questions online. In Los Angeles County, the breach was confirmed at Birmingham Community Charter High, Glendale High and Rowland High. The state Department of Education is conducting an investigation into the results from these schools, which were released, to verify their validity.

Score improvements have come even as the state has cut roughly $20 billion in education funding over the last four years, according to Hefner. The state is now in 47th place in the nation in per pupil spending.

"It's very trendy at the moment from the White House on down to kind of blame teachers for the ills facing public education, but this morning's results are quite remarkable in the sense that Sacramento has cut spending by 18 percent since the onset of the recession in 2008,” said Bruce Fuller, UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy.  “...Yet our test scores keep rising...and that's quite an unprecedented and remarkable result.”

Local and statewide test scores also showed a persistent achievement gap for black and Latino students, who were 34 and 40 percent proficient or better, respectively, compared to white and Asian students, who were 70 and 78 percent proficient or better, respectively. Though scores have improved for all these groups, the gaps remain.

Fuller said it was “troubling” that this gap has endured over the last decade.

“These class and ethnic gaps are just failing to close,” Fuller said. “And it's a royal failure of our school reform agenda. The good news is everybody is moving up, but the bad news is that some of our most expensive reforms have been focused on trying to lift kids at the bottom and we're not seeing much bang from those reforms. Those kids are doing better and that's good news, but in terms of making the school more equitable and more fair, we're just not making much progress.”

Deasy is pleased

In Los Angeles, Superintendent John Deasy said he was “very pleased" by L.A. Unified’s results in English-Language Arts. He said the improvements were especially "impressive" given the introduction of a new curriculum last year.

"The message forward is to continue this kind of strength ... as we move into the common core" curriculum, Deasy said. He noted that economically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities improved at a greater percentage than non-disadvantaged or disabled students, respectively. Though he said he was troubled by a reversal of that statistic for economically disadvantaged students in math.

Deasy lauded the district’s emphasis on algebra last year, which included having local superintendents visit every section in every school each month and come up with methods to improve instruction.

"Lesson learned, when the district puts a strong emphasis on something and provides support and clear expectations, we are really delivering," Deasy said.

Even so LAUSD math gains were flat or smaller than English improvements for the district in elementary and secondary education, respectively. In second grade, math scores dropped by 3  percentage points to 57 percent proficient or better; Deasy said the grade has been notoriously uneven.

Deasy said the math scores were "a perfect area for improvement. ... It's an area that we can put emphasis on and build upon strengths."

Districtwide, girls fared better than boys on the English-Language Arts scores at 51 percent proficient or better versus 45 percent. And for the first time, girls also did better in math, scoring 45 percent proficient or better to the boys' 44 percent.

Fuller said the improvement in math may be due to phasing out gender-based stereotypes.

The test results also gave the district an opportunity to examine the effects of various policies on school performance.

Miramonte sees decline

Miramonte Elementary School, which had its entire staff removed after a sex-abuse scandal involving two teachers in separate cases, saw a decline in test scores with decreases in both math and English scores. English scores dropped for the first time in the last few years, decreasing 3  percentage points to 30 percent proficient or better. In math, scores dropped steeply by 7  percentage points to 36 percent proficient or better.

But Luther Burbank Middle School, which had its staff reconstituted two years ago, has shown sustained growth over the last few years and double-digit improvement over last year in English-Language Arts scores. School Principal Arturo Valdez called the scores amazing — the school, which serves Highland Park, has roughly 850 students in the seventh and eighth grade; its student body is 97 percent Latino, Valdez said. The school saw an 11 percentage point increase to 49 percent of students proficient or better in math and a 14 percentage point increase to 54 percent proficient or better in English.

"The reconstitution is one of the many things that really created a change factor that we needed to have in order to move forward," Valdez said. He said last year, 100 percent of the school's eighth-graders were in algebra. And the school has worked to introduce new math programs and instruction methods to improve teaching, Valdez said.

The changes and improving test scores have affected enrollment with a few dozen more students that made the school eligible for two more teachers.

"This is the first time in many years more kids are coming to Burbank," Valdez said. "...It's something we hadn't done in a while, and now we're hoping even more kids are going to come and the good word is going to get out."

Statewide, a sustained improvement in high school scores was particularly noteworthy, according to Fuller. He said it could signify that schools are finally reaping the rewards of a reform effort instituted when these students were at the elementary level. In Los Angeles, the opening of many new high schools and an emphasis on smaller learning communities may also have helped improve test scores, Fuller said.

"If you think about the students who are in the eighth, ninth, 10th grade today, those are the students who back when they were in first or second grade, they were in the smaller class sizes when [the state] had funds to do that," Hefner said.

"In many ways, they're the beneficiaries of that, and carry that on through their learning lives. The fact that they had the one-on-one attention from a teacher back when they were first learning to read, they're a better reader forever because of that. And so you have to worry that when we're starting to pack those first- and second- and third-grade classes with 30, 35 students..."

Latest edition of tests

This particular edition of the standardized test has been in place since 2003 and is based on standards adopted in 1998. The standards are “fairly rigorous” compared to other states, Fuller said. “Fifty-six percent of all kids proficient. The glass is half-empty and half-full," Fuller said. "We’ve got a lot of progress to make. On the other hand...if you lived in Mississippi or if you lived in Texas, it’d be easy to jump over this hurdle. In California the bar is set pretty high.”

State test scores have traditionally been a measure parents keep a close eye on to judge their local schools and districts. But they are also a way for Californians to determine whether their taxpayer dollars are being effectively spent. Californians will vote in November on ballot measures to increase taxes to prevent billions of dollars in cuts to education.

Hefner said it’s important for people to understand that though they may not have kids in school, “children who are in school today are going to be the folks who fix your car tomorrow, who maybe diagnose your illness, who build your house, who decide whether you owe more in taxes or less in taxes.”

“Everything that we equip them with, every skill that we give them, pays off for all of us over their lifetime, and so the more we build human capital here in California, the stronger our state will be and the stronger our communities will be.”

*Correction: The story originally stated that San Marino Unified School District had the highest score in the county in English-Language Arts. In fact, La Canada Unified does.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).