Ventura County students again scored well above the state average on the Stanford 9 achievement test and generally performed better than they did last year, according to revised figures released Thursday by state officials.
The California Department of Education posted the scores three weeks after an error by the test publisher prompted a delay in releasing final results.
The updated scores differ by only a few percentile points from preliminary scores released June 30 by the county and show local students outpacing their peers in other Southern California counties.
Ventura County students outscored those in Los Angeles County in all subjects, and beat out students in Orange and San Diego counties in reading and language.
While high school students in Ventura County scored lower than last year, elementary students showed marked improvement, highlighting the benefits of class-size reduction, educators say.
Limited English-speaking students scored far below those who are fluent in English.
And school districts in the east county, such as Conejo Valley and Simi Valley, posted better results than those in lower-income areas such as Santa Paula and Fillmore.
But educators throughout the county were pleased with gains made over last year.
"Ventura County again scored as one of the top counties in the state," said Chuck Weis, superintendent of the county schools system. "We've got to be happy about that, but we certainly don't want to rest on our laurels."
More than 96,000 Ventura County students in grades 2 through 11 took the statewide exam, which measured basic skills in reading, language arts, math, spelling, science and social studies.
Scores for elementary school students rose throughout the county, ranging from the 51st to the 54th percentiles in reading and the 51st to the 60th percentiles in math.
A score in the 50th percentile means that a student scored better than 50% of students in a national sample.
High school students posted lower scores, from the 39th to the 42nd percentiles in reading and the 49th to the 58th percentiles in math.
Sixth-graders posted the highest scores--54th percentile in reading, 60th in math and 58th in language. The lowest scores were recorded by 10th-grade students, who ranked in the 39th percentile in reading, 49th in math and 46th in language.
Local school officials attribute the overall rise in scores to a heightened focus on reading and a return to basic skills instruction.
They also say teachers spent more time this year preparing students for the exam, knowing that the stakes were higher.
Under Gov. Gray Davis' accountability plan, Stanford 9 scores will be used to rank schools and determine whether schools receive rewards or sanctions.
Individual districts may also use the scores to decide whether students advance to the next grade, go to summer school or participate in after-school tutoring programs.
"We know that more and more test scores are being used by the community to judge the schools," said Supt. Jerry Gross of the Conejo Valley Unified School District in Thousand Oaks. "There are other factors that determine the success of a school, but test scores are the central variable in what makes us successful."
Conejo Valley's scores increased across-the-board, with fourth-grade math scores rising from the 65th percentile in 1998 to the 69th in 1999. Language scores also rose during that period--from the 69th percentile to the 72nd percentile.
"We did much better than last year, for sure," Gross said. "I was proud of the kids and the teachers who did very well in raising the bar and the scores."
Across the county, scores also improved but weren't as high those in the east county.
In the Hueneme Elementary School District, fourth-grade math scores rose from the 29th percentile in 1998 to the 36th in 1999.
"We're making small steps, but they are significant," Supt. Bob Fraisse said. "And as long as we are moving forward and working together and doing whatever we can to help these students achieve, then we are on the same page."
Education officials attribute the gap between east and west county to socioeconomic factors.
In districts such as Hueneme, Santa Paula, Oxnard and Fillmore, students move more frequently, are generally poorer and speak less English.
Within those districts, scores for limited English-speaking students are drastically lower than for those who speak the language.
For example, in the Santa Paula Elementary School District, seventh-graders who speak little English scored at the 14th percentile in language, while seventh-graders who are fluent in English scored at the 49th percentile.
Several education officials criticized the state for administering the standardized exam to students who aren't proficient in English.
"We're giving newcomers a test in a language they don't understand," Weis said. "So the results don't tell us how well they read or how well they do in math. It tells us how well they understand English."
State officials also cautioned not to use the limited English scores to judge the success or failure of Proposition 227, a ballot measure approved by voters last year aimed at eliminating bilingual education.
"It's too early for anyone to celebrate or throw stones," said Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction. "There really needs to be more research."
Other educators criticized questions added this year that were based on California's newly adopted math and language arts standards. They said those questions were too hard and reflected standards not yet implemented in the classroom.
State and local officials also expressed concern over drops in ninth-grade scores.
Both Weis and Eastin said they wonder whether the decline is due to a flaw in the test.
Last year, Ventura County eighth-graders scored at the 53rd percentile in reading. This year, the same group of students--now in the ninth-grade--scored at the 42nd percentile.
Test publisher Harcourt Educational Measurement received its share of criticism after making several errors that caused a delay in releasing exam scores.
The results were scheduled to be posted June 30, but were delayed because the publisher misclassified about 300,000 California students as English proficient. That mistake may have inflated the scores of limited English students.
The publisher also inaccurately scored the tests of 190,000 students in year-round schools in 44 districts across the state, including the Oxnard Elementary district.
Despite those problems, district officials said they are looking at the scores carefully.
"These are important indicators," Oxnard Union High School District Supt. Bill Studt said. "With this type of testing, we can see how we are doing compared to the state and the nation."
In Oak Park, where scores were the highest in the county, school officials are still looking for ways they can improve.
In the Conejo district, teachers will return from the summer holiday to reports detailing where students succeeded and failed.
In Ventura, educators plan to hire reading and math specialists to analyze the scores and improve instruction. And in Hueneme, leadership teams will analyze the numbers to find ways to help low-performing students.
District officials also stressed that the Stanford 9 is only one assessment, and that schools should use several methods to measure student progress.
"They have to be put in perspective," Weis said of the test scores. "They don't tell us everything about what our children know."
Times staff writer Catherine K. Enders and Times researcher Linda Herron contributed to this story. Gorman is a Times staff writer and Hamm is a Times Community News reporter.
* STATEWIDE RESULTS: Main coverage of test scores. A1