Orange County eighth-graders showed significant improvement in California Assessment Program results released Monday, but scores fell for third- and sixth-graders, according to local educators and the California Department of Education.
"The scores are kind of a mixed bag," conceded Bruce Givner, the Irvine Unified School District's deputy superintendent for support services. "In Irvine, they've remained consistently high for the past several years, but we did see some slight declines."
Those remarks were echoed countywide, as educators hailed the junior high school results while at the same time puzzling over the declines by younger students.
Orange County's mixed results paralleled scores statewide. State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who announced the findings Monday morning, combined his accolades for junior high school programs with concerns about the dip in scores by younger children.
"We're trying to get a handle on the reasons for this decline," Honig said of the statewide third- and sixth-grade results.
In tests administered last spring, eighth-graders made across-the-board improvements over the scores students at that grade level had achieved the year before. The statewide average in reading was 256, up four points; in math, the average went up five points to 269; in history and social studies, it climbed six points to 259, and in science, the average score rose to 267, a four-point gain.
For third-graders, the statewide average in reading scores slid to 277, down five points from last year's 282. Written language scores fell six points to 278, while math scores dipped three points to 278.
Sixth-graders averaged 262 in reading scores, a three-point decline; 269 in written language, a drop of four points, and 267 in math, down three points.
The state also released Monday the average test scores for eighth-graders in the state's larger districts. The figures--which combine all four test areas--included changes from last year and the average change over the last three years. The state average was 263, up five points over last year and up 16 since 1986.
The scores--used to measure the performance of schools, not that of individual students--remained well above the national averages and above California scores from several years ago, Honig said. The tests have a possible 500 points, but generally range from 100 to 400.
Although the state did not release a county-by-county breakdown for third- and sixth-grade scores Monday, those figures, as well as the results for individual schools, will be made public later this week.
Some state and Orange County educators who have already reviewed their schools' test scores indicated that the county appears to track the statewide returns.
"They almost exactly mirror the state," said Patrick J. McCabe, administrator of operations for CAP. "They're down three to five points in reading and math, which is almost exactly the drop in the state figures."
Although cautioning against reading too much into a single year's sample, several educators said they were in the process of reviewing the numbers to decide whether curriculum changes are warranted.
Vergil Hettick, director of research and evaluation for Santa Ana Unified School District, said the scores would "help us target schools that need help. That's what we're doing."
Santa Ana Unified, the county's largest school district with about 42,000 students, has often finished near the bottom of the pack among Orange County school districts on the CAP results, mainly because the district has a large percentage of students with limited proficiency in English. Those students often struggle with standardized tests in English, particularly the reading and written-language portions, Hettick said.
Although Santa Ana's latest CAP scores rank the district below others in Orange County, Santa Ana third-graders and eighth-graders did better than last year, educators said, earning the district praise from state and county officials.
"Santa Ana is an excellent example of a district that is doing everything it can with the language-proficiency issue," said Fred Lange, director of instructional services for the Orange County Education Department.
"Just holding your own under those circumstances has got to be a challenge, much less gaining," McCabe added. Large numbers of young students with limited English entered California schools last year, he added, so many that more than 37% of the state's third-graders did not speak English as their native language, a factor that several officials blamed for holding down test scores in the lower grades.
The huge Los Angeles Unified School District, which contains 15% of the state's students, averaged 219, showing a one-year growth of six points and a three-year growth of nine. While the district remains well below the state average, its gains are nonetheless substantial, McCabe said.
Honig credited the state's "deliberate, planned 'attack' " on junior high school deficiencies since 1986 with bringing up statewide scores. A task force reviewing the state's junior high schools called for sweeping reforms several years ago, and Honig credited the group with ushering in improvements that are reflected in the recent test scores.
Honig, who noted that the average Japanese eighth-grader was two years ahead of an American eighth-grader in 1986, said the improvements have made California students better-prepared. After three years of intensive state attention to junior high school education, "we shaved 25% off that gap," he said. "If we continue progress at this rate for the next decade, we will close the gap."
The performance of U.S. school graduates has been a source of increasing consternation among many business leaders, who fear that Americans are not well-prepared to compete in world markets.
The CAP tests have been administered each spring since 1974 to the state's third-, sixth- and eighth-graders. High school seniors take the tests each fall, and the results are released in the spring. Educators said that declines in the third- and sixth-grade scores in part may be due to several peripheral factors. In particular, they said the fact that the tests used in those grades are several years old may mean that the tests no longer accurately challenge what is being taught in the classroom.
Honig also said some teachers may have overreacted to a cheating scandal that tainted the CAP system two years ago. Some test monitors may have prohibited students from changing answers, he said, thus preventing them from correcting their own mistakes.
Several Orange County districts confirmed that their third- and sixth-grade scores had dipped along with the state average, but those declines were matched by marked increases in eighth-grade results.
Ocean View Elementary and Orange Unified school districts registered the county's largest gains in the results released Monday, both increasing by 12 points. Placentia Unified School District and Los Alamitos Unified School District jumped 10 and nine points, respectively, and Irvine Unified School District increased by nine points, bringing its average eighth-grade score to 330 points, the highest in the county.
In Santa Ana, eighth-graders averaged seven points better on the current tests compared to last year's.
Only Fullerton Elementary School District showed a lower score among eighth-graders, and it dipped by only one point.
"There's no statistical significance to that," Assistant Supt. Ron Bennett said, adding that CAP scores can misrepresent district's educational progress by placing too much emphasis on a few wayward scores, skewing a small district's average.
Newton reported from Orange County and Merl reported from Los Angeles.
GRADE 8 AVERAGE TEST SCORES FOR LARGE DISTRICTS California Assessment Program, 1988-89
County Name or Number Average 1-Year 3-Year District Name Tested Score Growth Growth Anaheim Union High 2,922 267 2 8 Capistrano Unified 1,525 309 8 31 Fountain Valley Elementary 696 310 7 2 Fullerton Elementary 979 275 -1 5 Garden Grove Unified 2,356 253 2 18 Huntington Beach City 645 317 2 13 Irvine Unified 1,359 330 9 35 Los Alamitos Unified 445 325 11 21 Newport-Mesa Unified 909 296 3 22 Ocean View Elementary 896 303 12 27 Orange Unified 1,633 293 12 26 Placentia Unified 1,285 307 10 23 Saddleback Valley Unified 1,555 326 6 29 Santa Ana Unified 2,042 239 7 7 Tustin Unified 654 294 5 6 Westminster Elementary 645 263 7 16 BY COUNTY Orange 21,927 287 6 18 Ventura 7,269 280 4 24 San Diego 22,344 279 3 17 San Bernardino 16,512 258 10 19 Riverside 11,698 252 5 20 Los Angeles 81,519 239 5 11 STATE AVERAGE 284,948 263 5 16