Test Scores Show Mixed Results at LEARN Schools

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Those elementary schools involved longest in a lauded reform program fared no better than other Los Angeles Unified School District campuses in standardized tests of reading, language and math, based on results released Monday.

In fact, of 29 pioneer LEARN schools that took the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills last spring--two years after embarking on reforms aimed at improving student performance by giving the schools more autonomy from the district--just slightly more than a third had improved in all three skill categories in the targeted fourth-grade.

Slightly more--12--had consistently lower fourth-grade scores than the year before and six experienced mixed results, improving in some areas but declining in others.

Those results largely reflected districtwide fourth-grade scores, where 39% of those schools tested improved, 24% declined and 36% logged mixed results.

When the district separated the 50 elementary schools that improved most in 1993-94 and last year in the three categories, only three--Topanga Elementary and two South Gate schools, Bryson Avenue and San Miguel Avenue--were LEARN schools.

Academics suggest it may be premature to judge the fledgling program on its performance and some believe that the time-worn CTBS exam may not adequately monitor skills emphasized in a reform-minded school.

"When you go into some kind of transformation, you're likely to suffer immediately when it comes to kid performance," said Robert L. Baker, associate dean of the School of Education at USC. "The CTBS is much better at looking at the general educational progress over time. It isn't intended to be sensitive enough to reflect . . . interventions in the classroom."

Still, the lukewarm results caused some critics to increase the heat to abandon the time-consuming program, which has spread to 192 schools since its 1993 inception.

"If students are not achieving, LEARN is not working," said Los Angeles school board member Barbara Boudreaux, one the reform program's harshest critics. "This is a grave situation and a signal to the public that LEARN is just window-dressing."

Mike Roos, president of the group of business, education and political leaders who began Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN, likened scrutiny of the test scores this year to pulling up seedlings to see if they are rooted.

"We have consistently said, 'Give us four to five years,' " Roos said. LEARN schools are "undoing a culture that's 70 years old, trying to create a new one, all in a milieu of being buffeted by people in the system that aren't so excited about changing."

Charter schools, which operate even more independently of district and state regulations than their LEARN counterparts, tended to fare better on the CTBS test between the two years. But even there some--like the much-celebrated Vaughn School in the San Fernando Valley--took a nose-dive.

Principals at LEARN schools that experienced a CTBS dip this year held the reform program blameless, attributing the decline to the shortcomings of the testing process and the test itself. Those whose fourth-graders scored higher in 1995 than the year before attributed the gain to LEARN.

"We have really become one family, one community, with LEARN," said Jacqueline Berz, principal at Topanga Elementary, which had the greatest improvement of all LEARN schools. "I really think that's one of the reasons we saw this kind of change in our fourth-graders."

LEARN schools remained high-achievers compared to non-LEARN fourth-graders, collectively topping district median scores in every category. In fact, two LEARN schools--gifted magnets Welby Way and Wonderland--held two of the district's top-three scoring slots in mathematics and Welby Way was second in both reading and language.

But in a clear example of the self-selection involved in many reform movements, the LEARN median is pushed higher by schools that were already testing well before they decided to enter the reform program.

Last winter, an outside review of LEARN criticized the district for moving too slowly to implement the reforms, particularly in areas of resolving disputes with district administration and fostering financial independence of schools.

Los Angeles Unified Supt. Sid Thompson said the district is working diligently to improve student performance at all schools by setting higher achievement goals each year.

This year, his goal was to raise districtwide test scores by one percentage point and teacher-training videos were circulated to better prepare students for the exam. Districtwide results show that goal was reached in most grade levels, with the stark exception of middle school, where scores dropped or stagnated in all categories.

District officials said they would renew their efforts to improve scores at all levels, with particular emphasis on the lagging middle schools.

The district continues to score well below the 50th percentile, meaning more than half of students across the nation scored better. Academics, however, say it makes little sense to compare large urban districts like Los Angeles--where students face myriad social, economic and educational obstacles--with all other students.

"The question really is, 'Compared to who?' and it sure isn't fair comparing them to a suburban environment," said Eva Baker, co-director of UCLA's Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.

Focus on one grade level may also be misleading, Baker and others warned, because it compares two distinct groups of students--those who were in fourth grade in 1994 and those who took their place in 1995.

But Los Angeles Unified targeted three key grade levels for CTBS improvement last year--fourth, eighth and 10th grades--because they reflect milestones in students' educational progress. By fourth grade, for instance, students are expected to have mastered subtraction.

The test, written by McGraw Hill Publishing Co., attempts to assess students' strengths and weaknesses in specific skills such as spelling, reading and math computation.

It has been widely criticized for encouraging rote learning rather than the ability to think, which contradicts the emphasis of new math and reading curricula, for instance. Los Angeles Unified is working with Baker of UCLA to develop a test that more accurately examines students' reasoning abilities in such areas as science, history, math and language arts. But that could take three or more years and in the meantime, CTBS has endured where more creative tests--such as the controversial California Learning Assessment System, killed by Gov. Pete Wilson two years ago--have not.

"I have learned to live with CTBS and it's data that goes back the farthest, which is useful to me," said Donald Brath, principal at Ivanhoe Elementary in Silver Lake. "But you have to look at lots of other information too."

For the monitored fourth-grade year, Ivanhoe took the largest plunge of the LEARN schools, although its scores remained far above the district median. The school experienced a tumultuous year in 1994 following the suspension of a popular teacher, but Brath attributed the decline largely to the multiple-choice test itself.

Ivanhoe entered LEARN promising a child-centered curriculum to more closely respond to the widely varied abilities of its students.

"We've been trying to focus on writing as a demonstration of their language skills," Brath said. "But that doesn't necessarily pay off on . . . a bubble test."

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Scoring the Schools The Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday released results of the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills, which looked at three targeted grades, fourth, eighth and 10th. A Times review of the first wave of LEARN elementary schools, which are in their third year of a program emphasizing local control and student achievement gains, found that slightly more schools had declined than had improved. Many charter schools, which are afforded additional autonomy from district and state regulations, fared better but still logged uneven results. Here are the percentile scores for the fourth grade:

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READING LANGUAGE MATH Years of Point Years of Point Years of 1994/95 change 1994/95 change 1994/95 DISTRICT MEDIAN: 35/36 +1 40/42 +2 47/48 PIONEER LEARN SCHOOLS: Anatola Avenue 39/47 +8 47/48 +1 60/60 Annalee Avenue 46/32 -14 51/35 -16 63/47 Apperson Street 49/45 -4 50/49 -1 70/59 Bryson Avenue 33/39 +6 36/47 +11 54/66 Carpenter Avenue 73/76 +3 78/82 +4 86/91 Carthay Center 44/47 +3 42/48 +6 40/40 Cowan Avenue 51/51 0 59/56 -3 61/69 Elizabeth Street 18/12 -6 21/18 -3 25/21 Fernangeles 34/25 -9 37/31 -6 39/38 Foshay Center 26/21 -5 36/30 -6 34/32 Harrison 33/27 -6 37/24 -13 53/44 Hawaiian Avenue 18/20 +2 25/25 0 23/25 Hillcrest CES 38/33 -5 38/35 -3 59/26 Hillcrest Drive 18/24 +6 22/29 +7 23/26 Hyde Park Blvd. 10/10 0 12/16 +4 10/12 Ivanhoe 72/58 -14 89/64 -25 95/61 Lemay Street 40/35 -5 44/48 +4 49/40 Nueva Vista 28/16 -12 32/21 -11 32/30 Overland Ave. 74/62 -12 79/65 -14 89/74 Roscoe 17/13 -4 20/21 +1 18/27 San Miguel Ave. 26/38 +12 31/42 +11 40/37 Sunland 44/43 -1 43/48 +5 61/57 Topanga 68/84 +16 68/86 +18 64/86 Van Gogh Street 68/61 -7 82/66 -16 88/81 Walnut Park 28/28 0 38/37 -1 48/38 Welby Way Gifted 88/91 +3 96/96 0 99/99 Wonderland Gifted 85/86 +1 90/91 +1 96/99 Woodland Hills 76/76 0 77/77 0 82/90 Woodlawn Avenue 26/20 -6 26/26 0 23/27 CHARTER SCHOOLS: Open Charter 72/69 -3 81/74 -7 74/78 Vaughn 36/19 -17 34/33 -1 57/43 Next Century Fenton Avenue 22/24 +2 22/32 +10 24/41 Palisades 79/87 +8 69/84 +15 73/98 Marquez 72/86 +14 71/88 +17 91/94 Canyon 76/61 -15 72/69 -3 86/87

Point change DISTRICT MEDIAN: +1 PIONEER LEARN SCHOOLS: Anatola Avenue 0 Annalee Avenue -16 Apperson Street -11 Bryson Avenue +12 Carpenter Avenue +5 Carthay Center 0 Cowan Avenue +8 Elizabeth Street -4 Fernangeles -1 Foshay Center -2 Harrison -9 Hawaiian Avenue +2 Hillcrest CES -33 Hillcrest Drive +3 Hyde Park Blvd. +2 Ivanhoe -34 Lemay Street -9 Nueva Vista -2 Overland Ave. -15 Roscoe +9 San Miguel Ave. -3 Sunland -4 Topanga +22 Van Gogh Street -7 Walnut Park -10 Welby Way Gifted 0 Wonderland Gifted +3 Woodland Hills +8 Woodlawn Avenue +4 CHARTER SCHOOLS: Open Charter +4 Vaughn -14 Next Century Fenton Avenue +17 Palisades +25 Marquez +3 Canyon +1

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Source: Los Angeles Unified School District

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