It's testing day in Jose Fernandez's math class at Emerson Middle School and his seventh-graders are tense. They face 55 grueling minutes of negative exponents, proportions and other math concepts they have yet to learn.
The students fall silent as Fernandez passes out a test he is reluctant to give. "It will be almost worthless," he says.
Like all middle school math teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, he is required to administer this exam -- and others like it -- every eight to 10 weeks.
These diagnostic assessments, begun in the district's 76 middle schools last summer, don't count for report-card grades. Instead, they are designed to help teachers identify youngsters who need extra help before they face state exams in the spring. After all, some students arrive in sixth grade not knowing multiplication tables or how to recognize triangles and other shapes.
L.A. Unified officials hope the reform will help increase achievement at middle schools, which on average scored close to the bottom of statewide academic rankings last year. The district's leaders are so sold on the new and frequent tests that they plan to expand them to middle school language arts classes in July and to high schools in two years.
But Fernandez, who is chairman of the math department at the Westwood school, and many other middle school teachers say the tests provide little useful information about students. And they say the unrelenting pace set by the district leaves no time to review material -- undermining the very purpose of the exams.
Thirteen-year-old Karen Trigueros said she guessed at several questions on the recent test in Fernandez's class, including several about "box-and-whisker plots" (which are used to separate information into equal parts).
"I really didn't do good on it," Karen said. "Some of the problems I didn't understand because we still hadn't gone over them." The class had finished only one of three chapters the test encompassed.
District officials concede that they have to work out kinks in the testing system. They say the exams, along with instructional guidelines, will be revised in the coming year to reflect the teachers' concerns.
Schools Supt. Roy Romer and his aides believe the reforms hold great potential for the district's secondary schools, where test scores have barely budged in five years.
He said the new tests will bring consistency to math instruction across the sprawling school system. And because the local exams are based on the state's academic standards, they will better prepare students for separate state exams.
"We don't use these tests to pass or fail kids. We use them to teach kids better," Romer said. "This is very fundamental to the reform of this system."
The tests are part of a larger plan to improve L.A. Unified's middle schools, which are often viewed as a filter for future academic success or failure. The district also wants to reorganize these campuses into smaller units and provide more personal attention, in part by having teams of teachers work with the same students. And officials are switching several large and overcrowded middle schools from 163-day calendars to the 180-day schedule met by most schools.
The new diagnostic tests, the first of the reforms, are modeled on a program in Los Angeles elementary schools, where teachers assess students every six weeks in reading and math.
Elementary test scores have risen consistently over the last four years. District officials -- and many teachers -- attribute that success largely to the highly structured Open Court reading program and the tests.
In middle schools, where students may see six teachers a day, critics of the testing say it will be more difficult to weave into the curriculum and schedule.
Many teachers say the time spent testing, almost a week's worth of classes during a year, would be better spent on instruction. Some don't want to be told what to teach. Still others say the fast cycle is taking a toll on them and their students.
"I'm always behind the timeline. I feel guilty if I don't go back and reteach," said Linda Wong, a math teacher at Nightingale Middle School in northeast Los Angeles. "There's no way we can keep up with every single page. I'm trying to hit the high points."
Schoolwide and district data on the new tests are not yet available. Officials say the true power of the exams will not be realized until next year, when the results are made available over a district computer system.
Some teachers think the new tests have merit, even if there have been first-year bumps.
Reggie Brookens, the math coach at John Muir Middle School near USC, says the tests and instruction guidelines are useful tools that can literally keep teachers on the same page, holding them and their students accountable for real learning.
"All of this is a work in progress," Brookens said. "It's going to take time. But it's a step in the right direction."
L.A. Unified is one of several districts nationally to embrace such tests. Other districts in California, Illinois, Maryland and elsewhere have done the same or plan to do so in elementary and middle schools.
The Sacramento City Unified School District, for example, has been testing its elementary school students every six weeks for the last five years through the Open Court program. Now the district is piloting similar tests in one of its middle schools.
Sacramento school officials say the percentages of elementary students passing the six-week tests and scoring at the national average on state tests have increased since the tests were introduced. "We have made steady progress," said Associate Supt. Kathi Cooper.
The Howard County Public School System in suburban Baltimore has been using locally devised middle school tests for about six years and reports improvement in scores.
"The whole idea is to catch kids early, so we'll have an idea of what they're about," said Fran Albert, the district's coordinator of assessment. "That's the bottom line ... to improve learning for kids."