Seniors' Test Scores Highest in 10 Years

Times Staff Writers

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said Monday that current high school seniors, the first crop of students working under California's tougher academic standards imposed in 1983, recorded "the highest scores in 10 years" during testing of reading, mathematics, writing and spelling skills.

Honig, buoyed by the results of California Assessment Program tests administered in December, used a news conference here to make his strongest attack yet on Gov. George Deukmejian in their ongoing battle over education funding.

"You don't get this kind of performance without a lot of hard work, and the true mark of a leader, to me, is somebody who gives credit where credit is due and doesn't try to abuse children and use them in a political or budgetary fight," Honig said in one of several sharply worded references to the governor.

"I don't think the governor understands education. I don't think he understands how schools work."

Deukmejian took his own satisfaction from the test scores, saying they showed that schools were getting enough state money to produce good results.

Kevin Brett, the governor's deputy press secretary, said, "The governor is pleased and encouraged with the results because they demonstrate that educational progress can be made at the present level of funding."

At the same time, Brett said Deukmejian still "is not totally satisfied with California's educational system" and wants to see the school dropout rate decline and the number of students going on to college increase.

Honig, in releasing the test score results, said they strongly met Deukmejian's earlier criticism that the state school system should have more to show for the billions in new education funding the governor has approved over the last four years.

The schools chief, referring to the number of the Senate bill enacted in 1983 that toughened graduation requirements and put new emphasis on basic academic courses, said, "The 'class of SB 813' has proven that higher standards and more rigorous courses make a difference."

Honig said this year's increase was the largest jump ever recorded in one year.

Mathematics scores, on average, rose 1.3 points to 70. Reading scores went up .9 to 63.6, and written expression up .7 to 64.1. Spelling moved up .5 to a score of 70.6.

In Orange County, educators had mixed reactions to Honig's announcement. Some agreed with his assessment that improved test scores reflect the 1983 education reform changes. Others, however, said that many other factors are involved in the improved student performance.

One Orange County school district superintendent, who asked not to be identified, said: "Honig is obviously running for governor, and that's why he's saying all this. I guess that's OK, but the truth is that many things are making the changes.

"For one thing, students are more conservative and concerned about academics in recent years."

But other Orange County educators firmly praised Honig and his support of the landmark education-reform legislation, SB 813, in 1983 as being the major reasons for the upswing in high school test scores.

Support Applauded

"I want to give a lot of credit to Bill Honig for the tremendous support he put forth to get the passage of SB 813," said John W. Nicoll, superintendent of Newport-Mesa Unified School District. "Honig deserves a lot of credit for bringing public awareness to education. This has increased teacher and staff morale, and when people think more about what they do, they give more of themselves."

Robert Peterson, head of the Orange County Department of Education, said, "The overall emphasis on increased attention to academics is affecting all categories of students. It's as if the polestar (Polaris, the North Star) had shifted from the temporary back to the permanent--the need for solid, foundational subjects.

"Some of the factors (for the improvement in high school test scores) are the college requirements and the impact of the business world."

Peterson also credited the impact of immigrant students from Pacific rim nations in giving a new emphasis on academics. He said, "Oriental-heritage families are setting the very highest of standards at home for their family members in school, and other families are seeing that they also would benefit by having high academic goals for their children."

Ed Dundson, superintendent of Garden Grove Unified School District, the second-largest in student enrollment in Orange County, said, "The increase in test scores is going on because there's a general and persistent emphasis put on CAP scores now.

"Some of the emphasis came because for a while there was money involved when the students could get 'Cash for CAPs,' " Dundson said. "But now the state isn't giving money for CAP score improvements, and it'll be interesting to see what happens next year.

"I think Bill Honig is entitled to a certain amount of credit for pushing reforms, but I also think a lot of the (CAP score) improvement is because the student bodies have changed over the years and they care more about academics now."

Credit for Staff, Students

Edward S. Krass, superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District, the largest in Orange County, said, "We're up 6.6% (in high school test scores) overall. . . . I think the staff and our students did a terrific job."

Santa Ana Unified, which has the largest enrollment in Orange County, also has one of the highest minority-student ratios in California. School officials said Monday that the current enrollment is about 85% minority. About 50% of the total enrollment is of students classified as limited-English speaking.

School officials said the increase in test scores in Santa Ana Unified is thus particularly pleasing because of the handicaps most students have with problems of language and culture.

Krass said the school district's high school division "has worked very hard to respond to the new state framework, and we've had many workshops with our teachers . . . particularly in the areas of (teaching) problem-solving and thinking skills."

Honig said the statewide math and reading scores were higher than the target scores established in 1983 when the legislation passed. He also noted that the results were all the more impressive because 95% of the state's high school seniors took the tests, an increase from the 79% who underwent testing three years ago. Honig said that normally test scores go down as increasing numbers of students are tested.

Honig also said that the test scores of minority students were going up faster than average.

The war of words between Honig and Deukmejian began in January when the governor released his proposed $39-billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The governor said funding for kindergarten through 12th grades would go up 4%, or $642.1 million, to a total of $17.2 billion, counting state, local and federal revenues.

But Honig insists that the schools need nearly $1 billion just to stay even because of financial pressure brought on by swelling student enrollments and the continuing effects of tight state budgeting that began in the late 1970s before Deukmejian took office.

Despite the hot rhetoric, Honig said he eventually hopes to be able to sit down with the governor and work out a compromise.

When the next batch of seniors are tested in December, they will be given a new, more difficult test that state education officials say will focus to a greater degree on higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills. In 1989, the test will be expanded to include questions on science and social science.

District and school-by-school scores will be available in the next few weeks, officials said.

A separate battery of California Assessment Program tests is given to pupils in three elementary grades in late spring.

Douglas Shuit reported from Sacramento and Elaine Woo from Los Angeles.

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