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Learning From the Scores

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Berta Cochario isn’t panicking yet. But the principal of Betty Plasencia Elementary School knows the pressure will soon be on to explain the lackluster performance of her campus on the Stanford 9 tests.

The severely crowded school just north of downtown is struggling to improve its overall score, which crept up 1.7 percentage points on scores released Monday but is still down 2.4 percentage points from 1998, the first year of statewide testing.

The scores were a severe disappointment to Cochario and her teachers, who believed they were doing everything right.

Over the past year, they had prodded students and tweaked reform programs. They assessed individual students’ abilities and honed teaching skills. They taught test-taking methods and increased parental involvement.

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All this was done in a school surrounded by dozens of new federal housing projects that have flooded the campus school with 1,560 low-income children. More than half the school’s students have limited English skills.

“When the figures came out, we huddled around data sheets and wondered, ‘What the heck happened?’ ” said Cochario. Taking a deep breath, she added, “We won’t be defeated. We’re not out of ideas, and I’m sure the district has some of their own.”

General Supt. Roy Romer said he is depending on Richard Alonzo, superintendent of the district’s newly formed Subdistrict F, which includes Plasencia, to help “concentrate our focus on pulling up those scores.”

“There’s a good atmosphere at that school,” Romer said. “We have to channel all that positive energy on teaching kids to read better.”

Alonzo, who was principal at Plasencia in 1989, is preparing to dispatch teams of experts to meet with teachers and parents, diagnose the school’s problems, and devise potential remedies.

“We won’t appear on campus as a police force,” Alonzo said. “But we will be offering support services for every one of our schools that hit a wall. We will question their practices, identify weaknesses, build on strengths and provide them with the additional help they need.”

Alonzo’s team is expected to hit Plasencia sometime in late August.

In the meantime, said Gordon Wohlers, the district’s head of planning, assessment and research, “their first step should be to sit down and examine student-by-student results.”

“We also recommend they study content reports that break down reading, language and math components into sub-categories such as reading comprehension and problem-solving,” he said.

Cochario already has started weighing her school’s strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, a year ago 35% of Plasencia’s teachers had less than three years’ experience. The good news is that every one of the school’s instructors chose to come back for the new school year, which started this month. That suggests the staff is stabilizing, which bodes well for professional development and consistent conversations about individual student work.

“We have a young staff,” said Cochario, who joined the school two years ago. “But they are gaining experience, setting down roots. So, the best experts about our children are among us.”

Plasencia’s students achieved modest to significant gains in some core subjects, but scores flattened or fell in reading and math compared with last year.

“I was mystified by those scores,” said Donna Hirota, one of Plasencia’s most respected and energized instructors. “We really spent a lot of time on teaching testing skills, and on fine-tuning problem areas.”

In retrospect, school officials now wonder whether too much time and energy was spent on student evaluations ordered by headquarters in preparation for the abolishment of social promotion.

“The assessments are valuable--no question,” Hirota said. “But they cut into time set aside for regular instruction.”

Striding across a fenced courtyard dotted with trees and roses, Cochario said, “We’ve got a lot going for us this year. We’re starting the Open Court [reading] program this year, and we’re emphasizing collaboration among teachers. We’re also going to provide more intervention for students, as well as for teachers whose students do not show gains.”

“I have a feeling,” she added, “that in a year or two, our scores are going to be much better. We’re going to soar.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Lower Scores

Plasencia Elementary has struggled to raise test scores. The school’s overall score improved slightly this year but is still down 2.4 percentage points from 1998. The composite percentage of students scoring at or above the 50th percentile was 30.8% in 1998 and 28.4% this year. The chart below breaks down the figures by grade, showing the percentage of students at or above the 50th percentile in reading and math, and the change.

*

READING

*--*

2-year Grade 1998 1999 2000 change* 2 22 20 19 -3 3 18 19 20 2 4 18 21 20 2 5 24 21 22 -2 6 38 23 20 -18

*--*

*

MATH

*--*

2-year Grade 1998 1999 2000 change* 2 33 38 32 -1 3 33 38 39 6 4 41 30 33 -8 5 33 35 31 -2 6 49 43 40 -9

*--*

*

* The change represents the percentage of students who moved up or down in the rankings.

Researched by Times director of computer analysis RICHARD O’REILLY and SANDRA POINDEXTER / Los Angeles Times

Source: California Department of Education


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