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Calif. Launches Ambitious Plan to Assess Schools

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Anxious to pay its taxpayers dividends for their billion-dollar investment in school reform and to focus educators' attention on academic subjects, California is launching a comprehensive plan to measure and publicize the performance of each of its 7,300 public schools.

Created by Bill Honig, the state's superintendent of public instruction, the statewide "accountability program" will rank schools with students of similar socio-economic backgrounds in up to 42 different categories, ranging from the percentage of students given at least one writing assignment a week to the performance of graduates during their first year of college.

The program, described by Mr. Honig as "unprecedented" in its scope, will include separate categories for high schools, junior high schools, and elementary schools.

'Performance Reports'

The first of what will be annual "performance reports" are scheduled to be mailed to California schools this spring, at a cost of $40,000. Most of the state's high schools have already received a preliminary report that marks their current standing statewide and compares them with other schools in their classification. It also includes state-set targets for each standard over the next six years.

Elementary and junior high schools are scheduled to receive similar preliminary reports within the next few weeks. And this spring, reports comparing the performance of school systems will be released.

The program was developed by the state education department over a period of eight months last year, in cooperation with representatives of the education community.

Continued Support

In the foreward of a report to educators outlining the new program, Mr. Honig writes, "Although it will take time for reform efforts to result in dramatic improvements, we recognize that we must soon demonstrate progress in student performance if we want to receive continued support for our reform efforts."

"By defining a comprehensive set of accountability standards, establishing state targets, and initiating improvement efforts at each school and district," he added, "we gain the necessary breathing space with the public to prove what we can accomplish. We also avoid being judged solely by test scores or other less professionally sound indicators of performance."

Mr. Honig characterized as "unfair" in a recent interview two reports from the U.S. Education Department, the most recent released last month, that purport to gauge the relative performance of the states in education largely on the basis of the scores of students on college-admission tests.

"[Former Secretary of Education Terrel H.] Bell's report just doesn't have the data," he said. "It uses only two "outcome" measures: scores on college-admission tests and dropout rates. That accounts only for students at the top and at the bottom. It leaves out that vast middle group of students." (See related story on page 10 and databank on page 12.)

Academic Curriculum

Many of the "indicators" used in the California accountability program were chosen, Mr. Honig said, in an effort to spur schools to expose a greater number of students to an academic curriculum.

"I'm not going to buy the argument that the average kid cannot handle academic work," Mr. Honig said. And in his report to California's educators, he argued, "More students than we ever expected can and must succeed in a more intensive academic curriculum based on a strong common core of history, government, science, and literature."

Criticisms Not True

"Critics have charged that the plan is elitist and directed primarily at the college-bound," he wrote in the report. "In fact, just the opposite is true. We are advocating changing existing educational programs to allow many more students to qualify for jobs, become engaged in our culture, and develop character and citizenship. Who is really the elitist--the one who thinks more students can reach these levels, or the one who is willing to consign the majority to weaker education programs because of a deep-seated feeling that most students cannot meet higher expectations?"

Mr. Honig acknowleged that "the bottom 20 percent [of the students in a school] will need special programs" if they are to study an academic curriculum.

Enrollment Levels

A number of the indicators for high schools focus on the level of enrollment in traditional academic subjects and college-oriented courses. Others measure the performance of college-bound students--as indicated by scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the proportion per hundred students in each school that pass the College Board's achievement tests, and the comparative grade-point average of the graduates of each school enrolled in the University of California and California State University systems.

However, dropout and attendance rates are also measured, as are the performances of seniors on the state's reading and mathematics tests.

Such information will be assembled by the state each year. But the California plan also calls for schools to report on their performance in a number of other areas, including the percentage of students enrolled in extracurricular activities; the percentage who are given at least one writing assignment each week; and the percentage who complete at4least one hour of homework per day; the numbers and types of books they read; and the level of community support for each school.

'Powerful Tools'

Mr. Honig called the measures of school performance "powerful tools'' that educators can use to better chart the progress of their schools. But the two reports of the U.S. Department of Education have shown that by attracting extensive media coverage such "report cards" can also bring tremendous public pressure on educators to improve their schools.

For example, the Council of Chief State School Officers, long opposed to comparative assessments of their work, recently voted to endorse that concept, in large part, many chiefs said, because of the calls for such measures following the release of the first of the widely reported federal reports.

In setting targets for schools to reach in each area, the California plan adds a dimension to the Educa-tion Department's reports.

One state target focuses on foreign languages. This year, 22 percent of the seniors in California have taken three or more years of a foreign language. The state is urging schools to raise that figure to 25 percent by 1985-86, 29 percent by 1987-88, and 32 percent by 1989-90.

It also proposes that the proportion of seniors scoring in the top quarter on the state reading examination be raised from last year's 50 percent to 52 percent in 1985-86, 56 percent in 1987-88, and 60 percent by 1989-90. And it wants 50 percent of all students to complete one or more writing assignments a week by 1985-86, 75 percent by 1987-88, and 100 percent by 1989-90.

The targets are "ambitious, but realistic," said Mr. Honig, adding that "they will produce gradual but significant improvement" in the schools.

In an effort to make comparisons fairer, officials grouped the state's high schools, elementary schools, and junior high schools in five different categories on the basis of the socioeconomic makeup of the students in each school, Mr. Honig said.

Five Ways to Group Schools

He noted that when studying ways to group the schools, state officials found that student and school performance correlated most closely with the education and income levels of students' parents; the highest scores were achieved by students and schools in areas where parents had higher incomes and more education.

He also described the California accountability program as only one part of the school-reform effort in the state.

"The accountability program assumes that we will upgrade the curriculum and put better books and better teachers in classrooms," Mr. Honig said. He continued, "This is just to get us pointed in the right direction."

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