Schools Await Word on Test Score Mistakes

Times Staff Writer

Schools in San Diego County and throughout California will find out later this week that their scores on a key statewide test of writing skills for eighth-graders were computed erroneously for the spring of 1987, the first year that the test was given.

The schools only last week learned their scores for the second year of the writing test, given in the spring of 1988, and received comparisons between the two years, which will now have to be refigured by state California Assessment Program testing officials.

For the San Diego Unified School District, the revised scores will offer little solace, as the results will still show that their students fall behind their peers in other county districts and across the state in their ability to organize their thoughts and write coherent essays on an assigned topic in a 45-minute test.

Some of San Diego’s 22 junior highs and middle schools will find that they did better in 1988 than in 1987, and others will learn they did not do as well as they thought. But the trend in San Diego still points to shortcomings with the district’s writing programs, despite the increased emphasis on teaching writing during the past two years.


Designed by UCSD Professor

“No one is going to applaud, even with the (revised) scores,” Robert Raines, a testing evaluator for the San Diego district, said Wednesday. “When all is said and done, the bad news is still going to be that the district is below the state on writing achievement, and that is not good enough for us.”

The CAP writing test, designed by UC San Diego literature and writing professor Charles Cooper, is the state’s first to directly assess student writing ability rather than evaluate it on the basis of responses to multiple-choice questions on standardized tests.

Students are asked to write an original essay on topics in one of six areas of writing--including autobiography, evaluation and problem-solving--with the grading done by selected teachers from around the state.


Under CAP procedures, scores for individual students are not collected. Rather, data is compiled for individual schools and for school districts to measure the state’s educational pulse each year and see whether state goals are being met by educators.

The mistake happened because the consultants failed to take into consideration the number of students at each school who took the test, state CAP official Pat McCabe said.

Performances Dropped

No one noticed the discrepancy until scores for the spring 1988 test--correctly calculated--were received during the past couple of weeks, which showed that most San Diego city schools dropped in performance between 1987 and 1988--or stayed about the same--despite increased attention to writing in the classroom.

Several principals called Raines to ask how their scores could have dropped, in some cases quite dramatically.

One example of what has happened is at Memorial Junior High School. It had been told there was a difference of only 1 point between its 1987 and 1988 scores. This was a disappointment because the school is now a special magnet writing academy in an effort to boost performance among its overwhelmingly Latino student body and to attract Caucasian students.

Raines said that Memorial’s revised 1987 score will now drop significantly, meaning that its 1988 score will reflect considerable improvement.

But, despite expected comparison gains at some schools, most schools and the district will report 1988 scores below the state average.


District administrators do not yet fully understand why their schools’ writing performance lags behind countywide and state averages. The district has sponsored workshops for teachers to learn new techniques, participated in a countywide writing project for secondary schools, and in general stressed the need for more writing in all major academic areas.

UCSD’s Cooper said questions asked of students taking the CAP tests show that, no matter the socioeconomic base of a school, “where the emphasis is on writing in all areas of teaching and where every teacher takes an interest in writing, there are big gains.

‘Strong Leadership’

“The research also supports the need to practice a lot of different kinds of writings, that gains in literacy are connected to specific uses and that teachers need to be encouraged to teach writing more carefully.

“In addition, a principal has to show strong leadership in encouraging teachers.”

At one of the district’s bright spots--Mann Middle School in East San Diego--its 1988 score is well above district and state averages, and its 1987 score will probably be revised downward, meaning the school will be one of the few in the district to make significant gains.

“It results from a concentrated effort spearheaded by our teachers,” Mann Principal Maruta Gardner said. “We devised a plan where each department, such as math, took upon itself to emphasize two particular types of writing and we did that throughout the year, not just during the testing period.”

Almost a quarter of Mann’s students are not yet proficient in English, and about a quarter more, although fluent, are not native English speakers, making the school’s performance all the more remarkable.


“With our population, we knew we had to work hard at this, and not just tell the kids that they should get a good night’s sleep before the test and to eat well. We decided last year that we needed to have a plan,” Gardner said.

At Correia Junior High in Point Loma, the revised scores will mean less of a drop between 1987 and 1988 than Principal Mike Lorch thought, although there will still be a drop.

“It’s very disappointing . . . and basically, instead of coming up with explanations to gloss over and mitigate, we basically know that we are not writing enough and not writing enough in a lot of areas. That’s something I want to sit down with my teachers and support committees and figure out why.