Study's Findings Anger California School Chief
A new study that claims to document a widening achievement gap between poor and middle-class high-school students in the Los Angeles area has come under attack from state education officials, who say it lends ammunition to critics of California's school-reform initiatives.
The study, which was released last week, compared the average scores of 12th graders on the California Assessment Program test in 1975, 1980, and 1985 at 438 high schools in the four counties that make up the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
It concludes that high schools in the region serving predominantly low-income students do not on average offer the same quality of education available in more affluent suburbs, and that "these inequities have grown substantially in the last six years."
While state officials acknowledge that tests scores have declined in the state and "hit bottom" in 1983, they take exception to scattered refer4ences in the report to the failure of state reform efforts to redress the inequities. Those conclusions have become the focus of considerable local media coverage.
"If any of the major reforms under discussion in California during this period of sweeping changes were powerful enough to alter the underlying pattern of inequality among schools, the results should be apparent in the data on these hundreds of high schools," wrote the researcher Gary Orfield in a foreword to the report. "They are not."
Mr. Orfield is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Metropolitan Opportunity Project, which is examining high schools, colleges, job-training institutions, and employment patterns in metropolitan Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia in addition to Los Angeles. The project is being funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Southern Education Foundation.
The study's conclusions on the inefficacy of California's reform movement have angered Bill Honig, who8as state superintendent of public instruction shepherded a comprehensive reform package through the legislature in 1983.
"It's a completely mischievous report," he said in an interview last week. "We come to the opposite conclusions from the same data."
By examining the period from 1980 to 1985, he said, the researchers failed to isolate the effect of the 1983 reforms, and should not have drawn any conclusions about them.
The department has mounted an extensive campaign to rebut the report, and held a press conference last week to announce that the gap between minority and white students' achievement scores on the cap has been closing in the four years since the reforms were enacted.
State officials also fault the report for failing to take into account the rising proportion of students taking the exam, a factor that usually leads to lower average scores.
In addition, they say that the researchers improperly assumed that inner-city schools are predominantly low-income and minority and suburban schools generally middle-class and white, which is much less true in Southern California, they note, than in Eastern cities.
Mr. Orfield insisted in an interview last week that the study was not meant "as an evaluation of Mr. Honig's reforms."
The news media have "really misfired" on the issue by taking some findings out of context, he said, and have "created a tempest in a teapot."
Nevertheless, Mr. Orfield added, the study demonstrated that "although a lot of different things were tried during the 10 years, the structure of inequality didn't improve at all, it worsened."
"We were sandbagged," responded Bill Rukeyser, a spokesman for the state department of education, "and I don't think it was an accident."
Mr. Orfield "has been around the block enough," he added, and "he knows when he's playing with dynamite."
"It only took one match, and he has caused an amount of damage which cannot be overestimated."