County Seniors Score High in Writing

Times Staff Writers

Seniors in 12 out of 15 Orange County high school districts demonstrated above-average writing skills last year in a new state test to determine writing proficiency, state education officials announced Monday.

Statewide, 79% of last year's 12th-grade class showed adequate to above-average writing skills, while 19% showed minimal ability, according to test results.

In Orange County, all but three of the 15 high school districts scored above the state average. Santa Ana Unified, Anaheim Union High and Garden Grove Unified school districts--all with large concentrations of limited-English-speaking students--scored below the statewide average.

The highest-scoring district in the state was San Marino Unified in Los Angeles County. In Los Angeles Unified School District, last year's seniors scored well below the state average.

The state average score on the California Assessment Program test was 250. Orange County high school seniors scored an average of 281 on the test. The lowest-scoring district was Santa Ana Unified, with 227, and the highest-scoring district was Laguna Beach Unified, with 319. The highest possible score was 400.

At Santa Ana Unified, school officials attributed their comparatively poor showing to the fact that 50% of their high school seniors have limited-English backgrounds. Three-quarters of the district's students are Latino.

Vergil L. Hettick, director of research and evaluation for the Santa Ana district, said special emphasis is being placed on teaching the limited-English youngsters how to write, beginning in kindergarten when they are assigned to complete picture stories.

"We're working very hard to make sure our students achieve in all academic areas, and that includes students with limited-English backgrounds," Hettick said.

Officials at Laguna Beach Unified, meanwhile, attributed their students' superior test scores to a heavy emphasis on writing throughout all grades and the entire curriculum.

"It follows a pretty rich tradition we have in Laguna Beach," Laguna Beach Unified Supt. Dennis Smith said. "We spend a great amount of time on writing, (and) the writing isn't confined to English class. The emphasis is on students to be proficient, fluent writers. I have to credit our teachers and the district."

The new test found a correlation between scores and the amount of reading, homework and television viewing that a student did on average on a daily basis.

"Good writing starts with good instruction," California Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said, "and these test results show a direct connection between quality writing programs and performance."

Last year was the first time that the state gave high school seniors the writing test, called the Direct Writing Assessment. Unlike earlier measures of writing ability, which emphasized multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank exercises, the new exam requires students to actually write sentences and paragraphs. The test covered four types of essays, including autobiographical, evaluative, interpretive and reflective writing. Test questions were not made available.

Eighth-graders have taken similar tests for the last two years. A writing exam is now being developed for sixth-graders.

Each exam was scored by a panel of writing teachers on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 considered exemplary and 1 minimal achievement. State officials then translated the scores into a scaled ranking running from about 100 to 400. Individual student scores are not provided, but the scaled rankings allow comparisons between districts.

Statewide analyses by the Department of Education showed that students were most adept at writing autobiographical essays, with 53% scoring 4 or better. They showed the most difficulty with reflective essays, with only 33% scoring 4 or higher.

In addition, female students were far better writers than males, scoring an average of 270 points, the state results showed. Males scored an average of 231.

The state data also showed that students who reported spending at least one hour a day reading in class scored at least 16 points above the state average, while those who said they spent at least two hours a day on homework scored 38 points above the state average. Students who reported viewing television for more than two hours a day tended to score below the state average.

Staff writers Elaine Woo reported from Los Angeles and Jim Carlton reported from Orange County.


Orange County results of the state Department of Education's first 12th-grade writing exam, which was administered to 223,912 seniors in California last year.

The scaled score allows comparisons between districts and the state average of 250. The ranking shows a district's scores in comparison to those that are similar in socio-economic background and in the number of limited-English-speaking students. A ranking of 44, for example, means that 56% of similar schools scored higher and 43% scored lower.

Scaled Relative score rank Anaheim Union High 234 31 Brea-Olinda Unified 285 40 Capistrano Unified 312 71 Fullerton Joint Union High 291 83 Garden Grove Unified 238 53 Huntington Beach Union High 301 85 Irvine Unified 317 77 Laguna Beach Unified 319 79 Los Alamitos Unified 298 55 Newport-Mesa Unified 291 61 Orange Unified 288 57 Placentia Unified 288 70 Saddleback Valley Unified 316 78 Santa Ana Unified 227 83 Tustin Unified 296 60

Source: California Assessment Program 1988-89

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