S.D. Students’ Math, Reading Scores Show Decline


Continued stagnant or downward trends in student math and reading achievement show up in the latest results of standardized tests taken by all fifth-, seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders in San Diego city schools and released Thursday.

In particular, reading comprehension and vocabulary scores throughout the district declined for the second straight year in many cases, a trend sure to result in pointed comments from school trustees when they discuss the test results on Tuesday.

Administrators say the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, or CTBS, increasingly measures areas of San Diego’s curriculum that are not emphasized as strongly as in previous years. But the board is impatient for new math and language programs to be reflected in standardized tests, despite high mobility, poor socioeconomics, or lack of parent support at some schools.


And, although San Diego’s results in 39 of the 40 sub-tests in math and reading that compose the CTBS are above the national averages for the test, those national averages themselves might be abnormally low since they have not been recalculated since 1982, when the national pattern of student achievement was different than that today.

Schools Supt. Tom Payzant on Thursday said he is bothered by the lack of improvement and also puzzled that there is not greater correlation between the CTBS results and those of the California Assessment Program testing carried out by the state Department of Education. CAP scores have risen over the past several years in contrast to CTBS, in part because educators say CAP tests focus more on the specific subjects and skills emphasized in California classrooms.

“I would be more upset if the scores were the other way around (lower CAP, higher CTBS), but I’m still worried,” said Payzant, who heads the nation’s eighth-largest urban school system with 121,000 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

The CTBS is given each spring at every school in the four grades, and in every grade at 23 schools listed as minority-isolated--having few or no white students--because of legal action to integrate the district in the late 1970s.

Its battery of sub-tests measures seven areas. Unlike CAP, CTBS reports individual scores for students as well as totals for each school and district. CTBS tests reading vocabulary, reading comprehension, language expression, language mechanics, spelling, mathematics computation and mathematic concepts and applications.

For the fifth grade districtwide, median scores in one sub-test rose, 15 remained unchanged and 14 declined. All scores for reading sub-tests dropped.

At grade seven, 14 sub-tests remained unchanged, and 16 decreased. At grade nine, 22 of the 30 sub-test scores were unchanged and eight declined. At grade 11, two declined, 23 remained unchanged, and five increased.

District testing director Grant Behnke said Thursday that curriculum changes play a role in the scores.

For example, Behnke noted that math computation scores have dropped during the past two years while math concepts and applications--which stress problem solving--have either increased slightly or remained steady.

“That is a result of California having decided a couple of years ago to de-emphasize computation skills and increase instruction in problem solving and concepts” commonly known as higher-order thinking skills, Behnke said.

“And sometimes a basic skills test like CTBS does not measure what we are doing differently, compared to CAP.”

Behnke conceded that students should still be able to compute mathematically, but said that, as long as computation scores remain above the national averages, he believes “the basic understanding of computation is still there.”

In the reading area, both Behnke and Payzant expressed more concern over the scores.

“I’m puzzled somewhat because our CAP writing scores have been up, yet there is not a clear correlation with CTBS,” Payzant said. Behnke also cited national studies, including those from Scholastic Aptitude Test scores released earlier this week, showing a decline in the amount of time and material a student reads outside of class.

“Skills tend to wane if you don’t use them,” Behnke said.

The district will switch to a different test next year from CTBS, which is written by the McGraw-Hill Publishing Co. and intended to identify strengths and weaknesses by academic objectives that are thought to be standard across the nation. The newer test will take less time to administer and will link more closely with CAP, administrators say.

But no matter the test, Payzant and his staff expect questions from board members over how to improve performance in basic skills.