Cram Sessions : Schools Scrambling to Prepare Students for State Assessment Test


Some schools are giving students mock reading and writing exams. One school district formed a math program partnership with a local university. And parents at a Westside elementary school held fund-raisers to hire teachers and buy lab materials to help fourth- and fifth-graders get up to speed in science.

These are among the tactics that Westside educators and parents have employed to prepare students for this month's California Learning Assessment System test, a statewide exam given for the first time last year.

Math, reading and writing tests will be given to fourth- eighth- and 10th-graders. Fifth-graders will take a science and social science exam.

Last year's poor test results, reported in March, cast a harsh light on the reading, writing and math abilities of California's elementary and high school students. Statewide, for example, scores showed that at least one-third of students in each grade that was tested demonstrated little or no understanding of basic math concepts.

This time, teachers and administrators hope the scores will improve because they have a clearer idea of what to expect from the exam, and are preparing themselves and their students.

In Santa Monica, 53% of Santa Monica High School's 10th-graders last year scored a "three" or below on a scale of one to six, meaning that at best they demonstrated a superficial understanding of the text they read in the exam. In the writing portion, 43% of the students scored three or below, meaning that their writing was limited in development and included errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

To improve performance, teachers devised a new approach to strengthening reading and writing skills.

Teachers now ensure that all students participate in group discussions to analyze the literary works they are assigned. While some teachers may have used such discussions before, they are now more intense and stress the development of analytical and creative skills.

For example, said Carol Jago, chairwoman of the English department, the 600 10th-graders read the first chapter of "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel. The English department faculty then devised a reading and writing task for the students similar to the CLAS test.

The students read, then met in groups to discuss the passage. A few days later, relating to the plight of the heroine in the novel, they wrote essays on their personal experiences in overcoming obstacles.

Jago said teachers spent a day reading and evaluating the exams, based on the state test guidelines.

"We looked at the papers, and the teachers later met with the students who needed more attention, to prepare them for the test," said Jago. The exercise, she added, "helps to diminish the (students') anxiety."

"I thought that it helped prepare us," said student Jenny Pearson. "Talking together in a group also helped, because someone might say something you might not have thought of."

In the Culver City Unified School District, officials are using a $180,000 California Academic Partnership grant they received last September to improve math education for sixth-graders, and middle and high school students.

In last year's math portion of the CLAS test, 80% of the eighth-graders at Culver City Middle School scored a three or below, meaning they showed only partial understanding of math concepts.

In a partnership with California State University Dominguez Hills, teachers at Culver City schools have participated in workshops and training courses. In addition, the three-year grant is paying for part-time math specialists from the university who work with the teachers.

The district also instituted a weekly math problem for students.

Each week, explained Marvin Brown, an assistant principal at Culver City High School, sixth-graders and algebra students in the eighth through 10th grades get a math problem to work on for one week.

At Coeur d'Alene Elementary in Venice, fourth- and fifth-graders were given a sample reading and writing test a few weeks ago. Before the test, the students were asked to read examples of essays written by fifth-graders from other schools who scored among the highest in the state in last year's exam.

Principal Beth Ojena said the students were asked to compare their work to the samples. Then, meeting in groups, they scored each other's essays.

"The kids said it really helped them, seeing an example of a good essay and understanding what to strive for," said Ojena.

This year, fifth-graders will be tested in science, a new component of the CLAS test. Thanks to parental support, students at Mar Vista Elementary School may be well-prepared.

Last year, some of the $16,000 raised by a parents' school booster club was used to contract with Science Adventures, a Fullerton-based educational consultant that markets science education programs, complete with teachers, science fairs and field trips. The company provided the school two teachers, who instruct students and help other teachers develop lessons.

Mar Vista Elementary, said Principal Monica Friedman, is one of the few schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District that has been able to bring in outside resources to help teach science. Many schools don't have the outside money for additional teachers and science labs.

Since the beginning of the year, fifth-graders have gone through a 15-week hands-on science course. During the chemistry segment, for instance, the students made their own SLIME, the popular gooey substance sold in toy stores.

Still, trying to meet the state's standards in science aptitude, Friedman predicted, could take years.

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