Class of 1985 Beats Class of '84 on Basic Skills Test

Times Staff Writers

California's high school seniors scored higher in all areas of the state's basic skills test this year, giving school officials some optimism that recent education reforms are paying off.

The average scores for this year's seniors, who took the test in December, rose in reading, writing, spelling and mathematics. With the exception of reading, the average scores were also higher this year than at any time in the last decade.

The scores for seniors in the Los Angeles Unified School District also jumped upward in each of the four areas one year after the huge school system restored its sixth period of instruction in the high schools.

Test results for the 15 districts having high schools in Orange County are not yet ready for simultaneous release, the Orange County Department of Education said Wednesday. However, an official in the Irvine Unified School District on Wednesday released aggregate results for the four high schools in that district. The Irvine results showed high school seniors there have made sizable increases in test scores in all four categories: reading, written expression, spelling and math.

Pleased With Results

"I'm very pleased with our results," said Irvine Schools Deputy Supt. Bruce Givner. He said that in math, Irvine 12th-graders rose 2.3 points: from a score of 75.0 last year to 77.3 this year. Other test results for Irvine's four high schools, he said, were as follows: reading, 68.8 last year and 69.6 this year; written expression, 69.5 last year and 71.0 this year; spelling, 74.8 last year and 76.1 this year.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said Wednesday that test results such as Irvine's show the improvements are being made statewide.

"These (statewide) scores reflect the tremendous effort being made statewide and locally to improve the standards of our schools," Honig said.

He added, however, that the rise in scores will have significance only if it continues for several years.

"We don't know yet whether this is a statistical blip or it's the start of something good," Honig said Wednesday.

Since being elected in 1982, Honig has led the campaign for reinvigorating academics in California's high schools.

Taking a cue from Honig, the Legislature in 1983 increased high school graduation requirements and now both the University of California and the California State University systems require entering freshmen to have completed more academic courses during their high school years.

Apparently, the strategy is paying off. The state Department of Education said Wednesday that more seniors this year will have taken an advanced year of study in English, mathematics, science or history than seniors in recent graduating classes. For example, 86% of the class of 1985 said they will have taken four years of English, up from 73% in the class of 1984.

Improvement Predicted

Honig, who predicted that test scores would rise if academic standards were toughened, said Wednesday he was pleased by the test results.

"It only stands to reason that if you take more academic courses, you are going to do better on academic tests," Honig said.

However, he also acknowledged that a new $14.4-million bonus fund to high schools that raise their scores on the California Assessment Program may have contributed to the better results.

In the past, seniors had little incentive to take the test because they received no individual credit and the school scores were not published until the following year.

Now, under the so-called "Cash for CAP" program, a school may win some bonus money--up to $400 per senior--if at least 93% of the students take the exam, and the school's average score goes up. State officials said they will announce the individual school winners in several weeks.

"A lot of kids didn't try on this test because the scores didn't mean anything to them," he said. "This year they were more serious about it because they could win something for their school."

Higher Percentage Take Test

The percentage of students who showed up to take the test jumped from 79% last year to 91% this year. However, school officials noted that an increase in the percentage of students taking a test typically results in a lower average score.

Los Angeles school district spokesmen William Rivera agreed that the bonus plan may have contributed to the score increase.

"We emphasized the test more this year, and there was more enthusiasm about it," Rivera said.

An Orange County Department of Education official similarly said Wednesday that the "Cash for CAP" bonus money produced much enthusiasm among Orange County high school seniors. "Everyone's very interested in seeing the results and knowing which schools are going to win money," said Eleanor Anderson, a coordinator with the department's research and evaluation unit.

She said the CAP scores for all Orange County high school seniors are not yet available, however, for public release. "We haven't received all the 12th grade (CAP test) scores yet," Anderson added.

15 Districts Involved

The county Department of Education is the agency that simultaneously releases test scores for all 28 school districts in Orange County. Only 12th grade test results are being released in the spring; thus only the 15 of the districts having high schools will get CAP scores results. The districts having elementary schools will have their test results released next fall, the state has said.

The state Department of Education said Wednesday that it would not divulge Orange County high school CAP test results until April 8. An official said the state has mailed out the results to the individual districts but has suggested no release of the data until April 8.

Billy Barnes, superintendent of Laguna Beach Unified School District, confirmed Wednesday that he has received the test results for seniors in his school district. But he said he could not publicly release the results until April 8, the date suggested by the state.

Wide Variation in Results

Asked for a general comment on Laguna Beach's test results, Barnes said: "Well, I can say I'm pleased in two (test) areas and concerned about the results in the other two areas." He did not specify which test areas he referred to.

While results vary widely from district to district, Orange County school students, overall, usually have higher average test scores than the state as a whole.

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Statewide, the 218,000 seniors who took the test this year averaged 62.9% correct in reading, up from 62.2% last year. But this is still well below the 64.1% score of the class of 1976.

The scores for the 12th grade test are based simply on the percentage of questions answered correctly. In reading, the 218,000 seniors who took the test this year averaged 62.9% correct answers, up from 62.2% last year but well below the 64.1% score of the class of 1976.

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