Most Students Lack Proficiency Despite Rise in Test Scores
By Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin
Times Staff Writers
11:10 AM PDT, August 15, 2005
California public school students showed steady gains on standardized tests of math and English last spring, building on several years of progress that state education officials attributed today to a strong focus on academic standards in classroom instruction.
Despite the improving scores, however, less than half of California's 4.8 million test takers reached a level of proficiency in math and English — the goal set by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The proficiency hurdle was underscored by a separate Times analysis that found only incremental gains among California sixth graders — the first crop of students who were tested each year since standards instruction and assessment went into widespread practice five years ago.
In some of California's largest urban school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, sixth grade math achievement declined over the last two years after initial gains, the analysis found.
Still, California's top education official said he was pleased with the upward movement in test scores statewide and with the fact that so many more students were taking exams geared to college preparatory math and science classes.
"With five years of data, we can now see a clear trend of student gains," Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said in a statement.
Like many other states, California has moved in recent years to establish a system of standards instruction. The standards specify what students are supposed to know in each subject at every grade level.
For example, second graders must be able to understand common synonyms and antonyms, while seventh graders must show they can add and subtract fractions.
Annual tests to measure students' knowledge of the English-language arts standards were first given five years ago; math tests followed a year later. Standards exams for other subjects such as science and history also have been instituted.
Monday's results were the latest measure of California's shift to this new system, and were based on tests taken last spring by students in grades 2 to 11.
The state also released separate test results for California's high school exit exam, a graduation requirement for the class of 2006. Students are allowed to take the test multiple times in high school.
The results showed that 88% of the 2006 class had passed the math test, which is geared to ninth grade standards, and 88% had passed the English-language arts exam, pegged to a 10th grade level. The state could not say what percentage of students passed both tests. Those figures are due out next month from an outside evaluator.
The passing rates were higher for white and Asian students than for Latino and African American students.
State leaders said that California's academic standards are among the most challenging in the nation, an assertion backed up by independent groups that have analyzed the guidelines.
The state's schools have shown significant progress in meeting the standards in recent years, the test scores showed.
For example, 54% of California's third graders reached the proficient level in math last spring, a 16 percentage point jump from three years ago.
And in English-language arts, 43% of ninth graders were proficient last spring, a 15 percentage point increase over four years earlier.