Essay Exam, Materials With Heart Mark Fresh Approaches in Schools : Local Scores Top State Averages

Times Staff Writer

San Diego County students generally performed better than their counterparts statewide in the first direct essay-writing examinations given California seniors last fall, results released on Monday show.

Data from the new California Assessment Program direct writing test showed that all county schools averaged a scale score of 258, significantly above the state average of 250. Seniors in San Dieguito, Coronado and Poway schools averaged above 300 on a scale ranging from 100 to 400.

By contrast, Escondido seniors and those in the heavily multiethnic districts of San Diego, Oceanside and Sweetwater scored below the state average.

The test, which will be given late this fall for the second time, requires students to write timed essays in one or more types of writing: autobiographical; evaluation of an argument; interpretation of an argument; reflection on an abstract idea. By replacing multiple-choice or short-answer examinations with essays, state officials believe the new test is a strong measure of how well students are learning higher-level thinking abilities and composing skills.

Teams of teachers throughout the state grade the essays on a scale from 1 to 6, with 6 the highest possible score. Results are not tallied for individual students but are only reported by school and by district.

'Starts With Good Instruction'

"Good writing starts with good instruction, and these test results show a direct connection between quality writing programs and performance," said Bill Honig, state schools superintendent. "The schools that have broadened the curriculum to include more writing and more rigorous writing assignments clearly scored higher."

In statewide data not yet available at the district level, 21% of seniors scored a 5 or 6, 58% scored a 3 or 4, and 19% scored a 1 or 2. Females statewide averaged 270, and males averaged 231. Students whose primary language is English averaged scores of 257, those considered English-fluent but with another native language averaged 238 and limited-English-speaking students averaged 158.

More students statewide scored higher on autobiographical writing, with 53% scoring a 4 or above. Only 47% scored 4 or higher on evaluation, 44% were at that level on evaluation and 33% at 4 or above on reflective essays.

Honig said data also showed that students who read at least one hour a day for class assignments scored 16 points above the state average. Students who spent two hours or more each weekday doing homework averaged 38 points above the average. And students who watched television for more than two hours a day averaged scores well below the average, Honig said.

"Not surprisingly, comparative data show that students who read more, do homework and watch less television score better," Honig said.

Disappointment Expressed

San Diego Unified District administrators expressed disappointment Monday with their overall scores, even without having detailed breakdowns of ethnic groups and language patterns.

"Just based on the little bit of information, I thought we would do better," said Kermeen Fristrom, director of basic education for the nation's eighth-largest school district.

Although the district also did more poorly than hoped on the first eighth-grade state writing test reported last spring, Fristrom said that San Diego had put "quite a bit of emphasis on writing in our senior highs, and it should have paid off a little better than it has." But Fristrom noted that San Diego did better than other major urban districts, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento.

Bob Raines, San Diego's testing administrator, said he is "flabbergasted (at the results) since we have developed writing guides for teachers" with the help of UC San Diego English professor Charles Cooper, who also assisted the state in drawing up the writing test. "We just don't know what went wrong at this point, and I'm sure when this gets to the Board (of Education) and to the superintendent, there is going to be even more emphasis put on writing."

La Jolla Scores 290

Among San Diego city high schools, La Jolla averaged a scale score of 290, followed by Mira Mesa High at 278, Patrick Henry at 270 and University City at 251. Hoover High, with a majority of students either limited in English or newly fluent, ranked lowest at 185, followed by Lincoln High at 202, Kearny at 212 and San Diego High at 219.

A puzzling factor to district officials is that city seniors scored differently from students statewide in specific writing styles. They achieved their highest average score in interpretation, at 250, and in evaluation, at 249, and scored lowest in reflection at 246 and autobiographical at 241, the reverse of statewide results.

County Schools Supt. Tom Boysen said the results provide a benchmark to measure future improvements.

"Now we have the first results of all our staff development, of new curriculums, etc.," Boysen said Monday. "Now, we've got to focus more on teachers to become even more effective."

DISTRICT NUMBER SCALED RELATIVE TESTED SCORE * RANK ** San Dieguito 878 315 94 Coronado 151 313 69 Poway 1304 307 65 Carlsbad 349 275 68 Ramona 296 274 89 Grossmont 3824 270 67 Vista 873 263 77 San Marcos 322 262 55 COUNTY AVERAGE 258 Fallbrook 448 250 35 STATE AVERAGE 250 San Diego City 5878 246 38 Escondido 1028 234 19 Oceanside 489 232 40 Sweetwater 3104 232 57 Mtn. Empire 68 219 44

* Range 100-400 with 250 statewide average

** Position in relationship to 20% of like districts in the state on a scale of 1-99 with 1 low and 99 high.

SOURCE: State Department of Education

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