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First the Tests, Now the Questions

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Christine Ikehara wants to know what all the fuss is about the new statewide test scores.

Her son Carl, who will be a junior this fall at Glendora High School, took the Stanford 9 skills tests last spring but was told they wouldn’t count toward his college applications or his class grades.

So Carl, an A and B student, didn’t exactly try his best, except for the mathematics test because he likes math. His classmates were equally blase.

“He said they didn’t even look at the [questions],” Ikehara said. “They just went down and marked the bubbles. As far as an actual reflection of students’ knowledge, I don’t know if it really is.”

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The issues Ikehara raised--what are the test scores really worth and how should they be used?--resonated Wednesday among parents, teachers, activists and interest groups as they began to comb through a mountain of new data from the first statewide test in four years.

Overall, the results released this week show California students trailing the nation on an all-English battery of tests in reading, mathematics and other basic skills.

Some dismissed or discounted those scores because they include marks from hundreds of thousands of students around the state with limited English skills.

Others sought to hold schools responsible. The state Legislature is considering a raft of school “accountability” bills that would allow state officials to penalize schools that repeatedly post low scores on standardized tests.

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But most of those who take an interest in public school performance were still sorting through the densely packed data reported in newspapers or on the state Department of Education Web site, https://www.cde.ca.gov.

“The first impression of many people is going to be that they’re overwhelmed by so much information that they can’t make sense of what they’re seeing,” said Barbara Miller, research director for EdSource, a nonpartisan analyst of public schools based in Palo Alto.

Scores were available for all 58 counties, 1,000 school districts and 8,000 public schools. More than 4.1 million students from grades two to 11 took the test. It is probably the most formidable mass of education data ever assembled on the California school system at one time.

The interest was definitely there.

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State officials logged 138,699 “hits” on the test score portion of the site over 20 hours from Tuesday evening to Wednesday afternoon--about four times the usual rate for visitors to the department’s site. By Wednesday afternoon, there were 15 new hits every seven seconds.

One eager browser was Jeffrey Rice, a veteran English teacher at Polytechnic High School in Riverside. With a few mouse clicks, he came across his school’s reading marks: the 39th percentile in ninth grade, the 45th in 10th grade and 46th in 11th grade. Those rankings meant that more than half of all students in a national sample did better on the test than the Polytechnic students.

“Well, these aren’t particularly making me very happy,” Rice said. “They could do better, let’s put it that way. Students are not reading anywhere close to what they used to be reading 10 to 12 years ago.

“But where’s the state with these scores? That’s what I want to look at next.” And with a couple more clicks, he was on his way.

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Kenneth Ballard, a PTA activist in West Los Angeles and a retired pharmacist, also jumped onto the Web site first thing Wednesday. He came away with more questions than answers.

Ballard said he was frustrated by the state’s reliance on percentile rankings and scaled scores. Percentiles tell how students did relative to other students in a national sample. Scaled scores show performance based on degree of difficulty of the questions. Neither measure shows what percentage of questions a student actually got right.

“I don’t know anybody that talks about percentiles, in normal, everyday conversation,” Ballard said. “Just give me the score.”

Meanwhile, schools that stacked up well in the rankings were soaking in the favorable publicity--even if it was expected.

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No one at Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos was surprised Wednesday at its high ranking in achievement test scores released by the state.

Those at the Shoemaker Avenue campus would have been shocked if they hadn’t outscored most other public schools in Los Angeles County.

Seventh-graders ranked in the 98th percentile in math and the 92nd percentile in reading, according to scores released though the Standardized Testing and Reporting program.

The 1,020-student campus is a college-preparatory school that carefully screens incoming pupils and spends six years polishing their academic skills.

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“One-hundred percent of our students go on to a four-year college,” Principal Thomas F. Brock said. “We all know why we’re here. All of the kids come for the same reason.”

Classroom work is rigorous for those who get in. And students take their work seriously, Brock said.

“It’s a single-focus school. The worst thing you can say to a kid is, ‘You may not be able to stay here.’ ”

* TEST SCORES: Stanford 9 results for Los Angeles County schools, except those for Los Angeles Unified that were published earlier. B4-7

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