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 to go all the way through high school under the tougher state academic standards imposed in 1983, recorded "the highest scores in 10 years" during testing of reading, mathematics, writing and spelling skills.

Honig, referring to the Senate bill enacted four years ago 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." This year's increase in California Assessment Program tests, he said, was the largest jump ever recorded in one year.

Buoyed by results from the tests, which were administered statewide in December, Honig used a news conference here to make his strongest attack yet on Gov. George Deukmejian in their continuing battle over education funding.

'A Lot of Hard Work'

"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.

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

Mathematics scores rose an average 1.3 points to 70. Reading scores went up 0.9 to 63.6, and written expression up 0.7 to 64.1. Spelling moved up 0.5 to 70.6.

The math and reading scores, Honig said, exceeded the targets established in 1983 when the legislation passed. He also noted that the results were all the more impressive considering that 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.

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

The improvement in scores occurred despite a cutoff by the state of financial incentives this year. For the last two years, the state gave cash awards to high schools that improved their scores, but the funds for this year were vetoed by the governor.

Other education experts said that although absolute proof is lacking, the evidence suggests that this year's gains are real and are probably tied to the 1983 reforms.

Reform Takes Time

"Any kind of reform takes 10 years to put in place," said Allan Odden, an education professor at USC who has studied the impact of the state education reforms for Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent research center. "It is almost impossible to make a direct linkage between the scores and what's been going on the last few years. But one of the things we can prove is that in California kids are taking more academic courses and tougher academic courses."

Gov. Deukmejian, meanwhile, 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.

Governor's Budget

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 grade 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 Monday he eventually hopes to be able to sit down with the governor and work out a compromise.

"We need his help. We need the governor's participation," Honig said.

More Difficult Test

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.

Honig said that 30 of the lowest-performing high schools in the state made significant gains in all areas tested, which the schools chief said was proof that the reforms are having an impact on the schools that are most in need of improvement. Of those 30 schools, 12 were predominantly minority high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

District and school-by-school scores will be available within 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, and the scores are reported in the fall.

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

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