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California Chief Claims Schools Back on Track

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Sacramento, Calif--With the state's 12th-grade test scores up for the first time since 1969 in all subjects, Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson Riles is claiming a turnaround in student achievement for California's high-school seniors.

The new figures also lead some analysts to suggest that the improvement among California students may portend a national turnaround in student achievement.

California's test scores began to decline before those in the rest of the nation, according to Dale Carlson, director of the State Department of Education's testing program. California's scores also declined faster than those elsewhere and showed the first signs, in 1979 and 1980, of pulling up again.

National Turnaround

"We are probably moving up sooner," Mr. Carlson says.

He also notes that this year's results fromthe Scholastic Aptitude Test (sat) appear to support his view that California students' achievement may be a precursor of a national turnaround. sat scores, he points out, leveled off nationally--but in California they went up for the first time in a decade.

Mr. Riles attributes the improvement on the state tests--formally known as the California Assessment Program (cap)--to three factors: state and federal categorical programs aimed at low-achieving students; the hard work of educators, students, parents, and school-board members; and the California School Improvement Program, which the superintendent has described as his own top priority.

(California, under Mr. Riles's leadership, is one of several states which have mandated creation of advisory councils of parents to improve decision-making at the school level.)

Improved Scores Linked to New Law

Members of the State Department of Education's Reading Assessment Advisory Committee, as well as the department's chief of evaluation and research, say they believe the improvement in 12th-grade reading scores might result from schools' efforts to meet a new graduation requirement set by the state legislature. This year's seniors, under the new law, are the first who will be required to pass proficiency tests in basic skills before being awarded diplomas.

Mr. Riles's claim of a turnaround among the state's 12th-graders is based on increases over last year's scores of 0.3 percent in reading, 0.7 percent in written language, 0.2 percent in spelling, and 1.2 percent in mathematics.

This year's cap results could have considerable impact on Mr. Riles's campaign for election to a fourth term next year. His opponents have charged that California's high schools have deteriorated during his tenure as state superintendent.

One of the superintendent's chief opponents, William Honig, a member of the State Board of Education and superintendent of the Reed Elementary School District, questions the significance of the results. He blames the decline in the 1970's on a loss of rigorous standards in the state's high schools, and he says that Mr. Riles, by ignoring the issue, is at least partly to blame.

In addition to all of California's 12th-graders, cap tested all third- and sixth-graders. Their scores in all the subjects tested were up by between 0.2 percent and 1.2 percent over last year.

The program also seeks to discover students' attitudes toward reading, mathematics, and writing.

Survey questions revealed that 64 percent of California's third-graders liked to read "very much," 29 percent "a little," and 4.5 per

cent "not at all." But when sixth-graders were asked the same question, only 47 percent said they liked to read "very much."

Approximately two-thirds of the sixth-graders reported having spent less than one hour on reading for enjoyment on a typical weekday. But 71 percent said they watched television for an hour or more.

Television Popular

Television proved to be almost as popular among high-school seniors. Sixty-nine percent reported watching television for one hour or more on a typical school day, and 45 percent said they spent less than one hour reading for class assignments.

cap also released results of a 1980 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics on the reading habits of 12th-graders in California and in the nation as a whole.

That survey found that 29 percent of California seniors and 32 percent of their national counterparts "rarely or never" read for pleasure. Only 21 percent in California and 20 percent nationally said they read "every day or almost every day."

When asked how often they read the front page of the newspaper, 34 percent of the California seniors and 32 percent nationally answered either "never," "rarely," or "less than once a week."

In its assessment of writing, the cap found that sixth-graders wrote more stories and reports in 1980-1981 than 12th-graders. Half of the sixth-graders reported writing, on average, once or twice a week; only 17 percent of the 12th-graders reported writing that much.

Copies of the full report, entitled "Student Achievement in California Schools--1980-1981" are available for $1.75 each, plus 6 percent sales tax for California residents, from Publications Sales, State Department of Education, P.O. Box 271, Sacramento, Calif. 95802.

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