L.A. teachers union and district in battle over tests

The Los Angeles teachers union and the city’s school district are battling over a district practice that, a Times’ analysis suggests, contributes to higher scores on state tests.

The practice is “periodic assessments,” a bureaucratic name for exams administered by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The goal is to give teachers insight into what students need to learn while there remains time in the current school year to adjust instruction.The union Tuesday directed teachers to refuse to give them to students on the grounds that the tests are costly and counterproductive.

But there could be a downside.

The local exams, given three or four times a year at secondary schools, appear to be boosting state scores in 10th-grade English and Algebra 1 -- the two subjects examined by The Times -- and therefore perhaps other subjects as well.


The district tests, which have gradually permeated most core academic subjects and most grade levels, have become central to a debate over the proliferation of testing, whether it interrupts instruction and can narrow the depth and breadth of what’s taught. The philosophical dispute sharpened this week amid protracted, stalled negotiations over a teachers contract and the need to slash millions to address an ongoing budget crisis.

Axing these district assessments would spare jobs by saving millions of dollars -- and would improve instruction at the same time, said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

The union’s call for a boycott of the tests has emerged as an early trial for new Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who took over Jan. 1.

Cortines asserted that the assessments are part of teachers’ assigned duties -- they are not optional. He also said he has and will amend aspects of the tests that need fixing. But he won’t toss them out because, he said, they have contributed strongly to rising performance on the state’s own annual tests.

He may be right, based on a Times’ analysis of last year’s improved state test scores in 10th-grade English and Algebra 1.

The Times found that greater participation in the district assessments was associated with better scores. In 10th-grade English, the correlation was fairly strong, accounting for nearly half the improvement.

The link was more moderate in Algebra 1, explaining about one-third of the gains for high school students in that subject.

The Times looked at these two subjects in part because the data were available -- it isn’t for all subjects -- and also because of importance of these courses. Algebra 1, for example, is considered a “gateway” course to academic success.

The district has not produced its own analysis on the effect of increased participation but has collected less-conclusive data showing that students who do well on the district’s tests also excel on the state’s tests.

Duffy remains skeptical.

“The pig does not get fatter when you weigh it 10 times a day,” Duffy said. “And if the test scores do go up, isn’t it phony? Because what you are doing is teaching to the test, teaching a subject that has been narrowed down radically. We’re not creating smarter kids. We’re creating smarter test takers.”

Duffy announced the boycott Tuesday at Emerson Middle School on the Westside, where teachers said the district tests were too burdensome on top of already mandated state and federal testing.

“We are supposed to be teaching, not testing,” said Emerson English teacher Cecily Myart-Cruz. “We can come up with our own assessments in our classroom, and we do -- every day.”

Top officials, however, had concluded that too many instructors failed to enforce high standards or didn’t focus properly on teaching the specific skills and knowledge required by the state.

“This is not to be onerous for teachers and principals and schools,” Cortines said. “It is to be helpful.”

Unraveling the apparent benefit can be complex, said retired district official Roger Rasmussen, who long headed the district’s analysis unit. Schools that are able to perform the assessments correctly, he said, may be those that have developed a cohesive staff, for example, which may be the real driver of improvement.

Cortines’ predecessor, David L. Brewer, a retired Navy vice admiral, tackled inconsistent participation in the tests at high schools by ordering a 95% participation rate. He credited that directive with last year’s rise in test scores, the biggest jump in five years.

But districtwide, the high school participation rate in English barely budged, and while the increase was greater in math, it still fell far short of Brewer’s target.

Yet, the schools with increased participation generally reaped benefits. The lackluster overall response resulted in part from problems at schools. The assessments have occurred at the wrong time, for example, at some year-round campuses, where students start their school year at various times.

“My students would be tested on Mendelian genetics when we’re just getting to how chromosomes separate,” said Joseph Rowland, who taught science at Roosevelt High School for 22 years before moving to Franklin High this year. “It’s ridiculous.”

Rowland once found that his class’ data had been combined with that of another teacher, rendering it pointless as a guide to future instruction. Like other teachers interviewed, he also complained about never getting data back or getting it late, though the current process is for teachers to go online and retrieve the data themselves.

Manual Arts High School English teacher Travis Miller said two rounds of his own class assessments did not count last year. Once, his tests weren’t picked up on time, and once, he didn’t receive all materials until the period for submitting them had closed.

Miller also knows teachers who simply refuse to give the assessments. Manual Arts’ official participation rate last year was 61% in English and 14% in math.

Emerson’s record on giving assessments is relatively strong, despite its prominence at the center of Tuesday’s protest.

On state tests, Emerson ranks a little below average overall but well above average when compared with schools that serve a similar student population.

“This school is full of creative people and they need to have their hands untied to shine,” said UCLA professor Allen F. Roberts, the parent of an Emerson 8th-grader.

The district puts the cost of the assessments at $3 million to $5 million per year. The teachers’ union offers a so-far unsubstantiated figure of $150 million -- based on its interpretation of indirect costs, such as the related use of math and reading coaches to assist teachers.


Times staff writer Doug Smith provided data analysis.