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The real test

The state test results released Tuesday for Locke High School weren't the sort of thing its new operator, Green Dot Public Schools, is accustomed to seeing: Not a single student scored as proficient in geometry, for example, and only a few percent tested at the next level down, basic.

By and large, students scored no better than they had under the Los Angeles Unified School District. But Locke is a different kind of charter school, and in its first year it successfully changed other, previously dismal numbers. Truancy was down. Crime and class-cutting were down. The numbers of students staying in school and taking the tests were up dramatically. Those suggest a changed culture at Locke and are the most important indicators of progress.

As this page has noted, Green Dot took on a much bigger challenge with this Watts high school than it had with its other schools. Charter schools typically start small, accept only as many students as they have ample room and staff for, and draw more motivated parents and students from a broad geographical area. Most public schools operating under those conditions would get higher scores too. But by enrolling all the students within its attendance boundaries -- including the perpetual truants, gangbangers and likely dropouts along with the honors students -- Locke accepted the same challenges faced by L.A.'s more troubled public schools.

Green Dot could have made itself look good by letting the potential dropouts go. After years of cutting classes at the old Locke, they were unlikely to score well on the state's standardized tests. Instead, Locke tested 38% more students this year than last. That means a lot more students were still in school in late spring, when the state tests are administered.

Reducing the dropout rate is the single most important priority for L.A. schools -- and it's worth noting that the district has made gains in that area while modestly raising test scores. It will take a few years to see whether there is a pattern here, but there's reason to feel encouraged.

Schools tend to score low in their first year of operation, so it would be premature in any case to judge the takeover at Locke -- or at the campuses run by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which fared about as well as district-run schools. Locke is just beginning the transformation from large, comprehensive high school to small academies, and this should be accompanied by an upward trend in its scores. Ultimately, keeping kids in school isn't enough if it isn't accompanied by better learning. Conversely, we'll never see more learning if youngsters aren't in school, and on this front, Green Dot has started off well.

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