What the Scores Tell Us


Orange County's students continued to outstrip their peers statewide in California's second administration of the Stanford 9 standardized exam, even though the county is home to a higher proportion of students who don't speak English fluently.

According to test results released Thursday, Orange County public school pupils ranked five to 10 percentile points higher than students statewide in every subject and grade level tested by the high-stakes Stanford 9.

While most local reading and spelling scores lodged below the national average again this year, the majority of marks in math and language skills exceeded the 50th percentile.

Orange County's edge was most apparent among students who speak English fluently; they posted solid marks mostly in the 60th and 70th percentile range. That's two to three times higher than scores of those still struggling to learn the language.

"If you look at the overall scores, we've made real progress," said William Habermehl, associate superintendent for the Orange County Department of Education. "With the [students fluent in English], we are well ahead of the state average, and that's where Orange County should be. We're good and we're going to get much better."

Fluent English speakers here ranked a full eight to 14 percentile points higher than similar pupils statewide. In only one category--10th-grade reading--did Orange County's English speakers fail to beat the median, which by definition is the 50th percentile.

Take, for example, math scores for Orange County's fluent English speakers:

Third-graders averaged in the 69th percentile; sixth-graders hit the 74th; and ninth-graders scored in the 69th. All those rankings were at least 12 points higher than the statewide results.

"You're dealing with economics," said Jeff Bristow, testing director for the Capistrano Unified School District, referring to the financial well-being of many Orange County families. And, he said, the relatively small size of local school districts gives them the opportunity to tailor curriculum and classes, a harder task for a giant district such as Los Angeles. "The instructional programs in Orange County school districts like ours, Irvine's and Saddleback's are really, really tight. I don't think Los Angeles has the ability to deliver instruction the way we do, even with [fluent] English speakers."

This is the second year California pupils have taken the Stanford exam, a critical component of the state's new program to make public education accountable. Test results will soon play a role in everything from school-site funding to student promotion decisions.

The basic skills exam, administered to more than 4.2 million California students--quizzes those in grades 2 to 11 on reading, math, language, spelling, science and social science.

The release of results was held up for three weeks because of glitches with scores for year-round schools and limited-English speakers. Initial, incorrect results appeared to show great strides for the students who don't know English well, but the corrected scores show more modest improvement. Of the 343,658 test-takers in Orange County, about 27% speak little or no English. Statewide, that number is 21%.

Orange County students in the high-achieving, affluent Irvine, Saddleback Valley, Laguna Beach and Los Alamitos districts earned bragging rights, posting average marks in the 60th, 70th and 80th percentiles.

Their peers in the impoverished Santa Ana district, where most children enter school without English skills, had improved scores as well, but most still lagged in the bottom third nationally. Other districts with significant batches of students learning English, including Anaheim City and Magnolia, saw scores mainly below the 40th percentile. But their scores for fluent English speakers--many of whom have "graduated" from bilingual programs--were at or near the national median.

Joe Tafoya, Santa Ana's deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said comparisons between school districts with few English learners and his own were not particularly meaningful.

"There are schools in the county that score very, very well who have [limited-English] populations in the single digits," he said. "Santa Ana High has 70% [who are still learning to speak English]. That obviously impacts our overall test scores. . . . We are doing better with limited-English proficient kids than we should be because we can devote more resources to them."

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