San Diego Union-Tribune

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

County's Student Test Scores Are Victim of Language Barrier
Results above average for English-speakers

The first results from California's new mandated achievement test are in, and San Diego County's English-speaking students on average outscored their counterparts nationally, exceeding expectations among educators and others.

But the results confirm the warnings of educators across the state: Overall scores were dragged down substantially by students who speak little or no English.

Looking to the scores for English-speaking students, San Diego city school board President Ron Ottinger said, "This is pretty heartening, considering it's a new test."

When the average scores of the one-in-five county students who are limited-English speakers are figured in, however, most local districts performed at or below national norms.

"I think it's a huge factor," said county schools Superintendent Rudy Castruita. "A lot of the limited-English students can't read the language, yet they are being assessed."

The preliminary state and local figures show an additional disturbing picture -- a significant drop in reading performance from middle school to high school, regardless of English competency.

Educators speculate that the decline may be partly attributable to the whole-language method of teaching that held favor throughout the late 1980s and early '90s.

Local scores in math, science and other subjects, meanwhile, were often at or below the average established by a national sampling of students selected by the publisher of the Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition.

Again, the figures rise when limited-English speakers are not counted.

Statewide results from the nearly 4.2 million second-through-11th-graders who took this spring's Stanford 9 test yield the largest comparison ever of students to their national peers.

Within the next two weeks, parents statewide are due to receive individual student results in the mail from their children's school districts. Technical problems will delay such notifications in the 136,000-student San Diego Unified School District.

Most parents hope the results will help pinpoint schools' strengths and weaknesses, but believe the individual student scores do not tell the whole story.

"I value more the day-to-day what I see coming home, what I'm seeing in their work when they bring work home and the input from the teachers," said Vista PTA leader Candi Dunn, who has children in elementary and middle schools.

Reading scores for English-speaking students in San Diego, along with other districts, were consistently above the national norm, with some drop-offs in reading scores for grades 9 through 11.

Similarly, San Diego scores fell in language and math in grade 10.

In grades two through eight, scores for English-speaking students were generally in the high 50s, meaning they scored better than half of the national sample.

Former U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin, who assumes the superintendency of the state's second-largest school district today, expressed some satisfaction that San Diego's English-speaking students generally outscored their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

"Our community expects improved student achievement for all of our students with no exceptions and no excuses," he said in a prepared statement. "While preliminary data indicate that many of our students (are) scoring above the norm, we can do better.

District officials, however, were reluctant to interpret scores for the district's students who don't speak English. "We don't expect to draw any real conclusions from (limited-English) scores. But frankly, they are higher than I had hoped for," Ottinger said.

Bersin plans to measure student progress on a more personal level by following a group of second-grade students over the next four years.

He plans to select students from schools representing a geographic cross-section of the city to meet with him throughout the next four years. Bersin will personally keep track of their progress through standardized tests like the Stanford 9 but also report cards and portfolios, as well as their personal growth and development.

The district-by-district figures come with a host of warnings from educators, who nonetheless agree that the standardized exam signals a new era of accountability for the state's oft-maligned public school system.

For comparison
"This is a bench mark that we can look at and gives us a target for improvement," said Castruita.

Educators suggest that the results will be more useful as a point of comparison to districts' own future performance than as a yardstick for measuring California's standing among students nationwide.

They also say various demographic factors make San Diego County students a drastically different lot than the national counterparts to which their scores are compared.

But Castruita and others acknowledge that the results reveal a need to improve reading scores, which dropped noticeably between the eighth and ninth grade in every district except Lakeside.

Three years ago, Lakeside middle school teachers launched a reading program that emphasizes reading comprehension.

The drop was sharpest in Julian Union High School District, where freshmen scored 41 percentile points lower than eighth-graders in the Julian Elementary District. Other districts dropped from 6 to 22 points between grades.

One possible explanation is a difference between the test's content and ninth-grade classroom lessons. For example, the vocabulary test calls for students to determine a word's definition from its use in a sentence, though this isn't necessarily the way vocabulary is taught in high school English classes.

Most high schools offer no reading classes, and for those that do, reading is generally an elective in an already heavy class load.

Other explanations for the reading score decline include the lack of recreational reading by students. Also, students know the scores don't count in college admissions, giving them little incentive to excel.

'No one answer'
"The public needs to know how complex this (reading) thing really is," said Don Mayfield, a language arts expert for the county. "There is no one answer."

The drop in reading scores for ninth-graders held true statewide.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said scores were hurt by a reading-instruction program that relied on "whole language" rather than sounding out words.

Gov. Pete Wilson, meanwhile, said the state has adopted a back-to-basics reading policy that emphasizes phonics.

But Eastin found good news in the state's math, science and history-social science scores.

"The results are all the more remarkable in light of the fact that California spends about $900 less per pupil than the national average. Think of what we would see if we supported our children like other states do," she said yesterday.

Statewide results showing that students scored at or above the national level in 15 of 43 grade-and-subject rankings prompted debate about whether that is good or bad.

"We really are here to say to you today: good but not great," summed up Eastin. She said the results are "much better than doomsayers predicted."

Wilson said the superintendent's comment that the scores are acceptable is "sad." He said the figures show that California has been shortchanging its children.

'It is deplorable'
"It means that more than two-thirds of California's grade level is below the national average and that is clearly not acceptable -- in fact, it is deplorable," said Wilson.

Educators stress that any interpretation of local test scores should take into account the high percentage of non-English-speaking students in the county.

Countywide, 21.7 percent of students are limited-English proficient, or LEP, compared with 1.8 percent in the norm group.

Similarly, there are striking demographic differences among local districts. For example, 3 percent of Del Mar students are limited-English, compared to 87 percent in San Ysidro. Del Mar's grade-by-grade scores typically hover near the 80th percentile and above, while San Ysidro averages are near the 20th percentile.

Nor do linguistic differences count as the only major demographic factor on test scores.

Poverty also plays a crucial role.

In National School District, which serves the 13th-poorest mid-sized city in the nation, students generally placed in the bottom third of the national pool of roughly 250,000 students.

By contrast, affluent districts with little student turnover can boast scores well above national averages. Rancho Santa Fe School District students' scores in math and language ranked higher than 90 percent of the national sample group's scores.

The divergence reflects a persistent urban-suburban split.

Some complaints
Suburban students are generally more affluent, more likely to speak English and likely to receive instruction from more experienced teachers, while high rates of poverty and foreign languages present challenges to learning in urban districts.

Some teachers complain that the new test was imposed on students with little notice and that it was out of sync with the state's new academic standards.

The exam tested second-through eighth-graders in reading, math, language and spelling. Students in ninth through 11th grades were tested in reading, math, language, science and social science.

It was the first standardized test given to California students in four years. State officials caution that the figures are preliminary.

A court order issued in San Francisco last Thursday is preventing the state from releasing most of the results. The San Diego Union-Tribune obtained the county figures through the county Office of Education, which was not restricted by the court order.

School-by-school figures could be available by mid-July.

California schools have been without a statewide test since 1994, when the short-lived CLAS exam was shelved because of complaints over its content and design.

State leaders last year settled on the Stanford exam, published by Harcourt Brace of Texas. The testing program is costing the state nearly $35 million.

Staff writers Maureen Magee, Lillian Leopold, Anna Cearley and Ed Mendel in Sacramento contributed to this report.