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How Venice High opted in — and became LA’s most-improved high school

Craig Clough | November 8, 2016

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Oryla Wiedoeft (Credit: Venice High website)

While statistically Venice High School was the most-improved LA Unified high school in 2015-16 based on state test scores, the real story behind the jump is participation: how many students actually took the tests and how the school’s administration turned the tide of a strong “opt-out” movement that had swept through the campus.

The school’s numbers on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) standardized tests — also known as the Smarter Balanced tests after the consortium that administers them — are impressive, as the school jumped from a 25 percent proficiency rate of students meeting or exceeding the English language arts standard in 2015 to 67 percent in 2016, and from a 12 percent proficiency rate to 41 percent on the math test. Both of these increases were the best in LA Unified for high schools.

In 2015, roughly 80 percent of the juniors eligible to take the test opted out. But in 2016, after school officials put in a significant effort to get students interested in the test, roughly 80 percent participated, and as a result the school went from scoring well below the district average in 2015 to well above in 2016.

Venice was also one of the most improved schools in the district from 2015 to 2016 on a new ranking system released last week by the California Charter Schools Association. The system evaluates every public charter and traditional school in the state by comparing schools with similar demographics, including race and socioeconomic status.

The reasons for Venice’s low participation on the tests in 2015 were varied. The year before, which was the first year of the Smarter Balanced tests, the school’s principal left after the first semester, and during the spring semester — when the test was administered — the school had three different interim principals.

“There wasn’t a lot of communication from the administration, because we went through several principals, about the importance of the test or what the test entailed,” said Jennifer Lisowski, an English teacher at Venice. “I think some of the juniors, they were just scared and they were nervous. It wasn’t because they weren’t prepared.”

Aside from the poor communication, there was also general opposition to the test from students, as the Venice community has long valued a counter-culture movement and social activism. Those ideals are prevalent in the student body, said Oryla Wiedoeft, who became principal last school year.

“Venice is a unique place, so there is a lot of opposition towards more mandated things. That’s what makes Venice the community that it is, which is great,” Wiedoeft said.

In certain states and communities around the country, there has been growing opposition to standardized testing and the new Common Core standards, with an “opt-out” movement encouraging students not to take standardized tests. Some critics of the new standards and the tests say they put too much pressure on students, and they should not be used to judge teachers. One reason so many students choose to opt out is because the tests don’t figure in their grade-point averages or college entrance applications.

In California and LA Unified, opt-out rates have been minimal compared to other states, with the exception of a few districts. But in Venice, opting out took hold, Wiedoeft said, and one reason was that the tests came around the same time as Advanced Placement exams.

“The placement of the testing was done before and during AP’s, and there was no strong leadership to unify everybody toward a common goal,” she said.

Staff at Venice High were able to persuade the new junior class to participate by pushing a number of ideas, Wiedoeft said. One was letting students know that the California State University system and the California Community Colleges System use the tests to determine English and math readiness when deciding if an incoming freshman needs to be placed in remedial courses. Students were also told that the test results reflect how their school is viewed, and hence, how they might be viewed.

“We did have two parents that were extremely vocal about opting out, and then you have the rest of the parents who understand that in general parents shop for schools, and one of the things they look at as a big factor are test scores, so the vast majority of the parents understood the importance for the school, and also for the kids,” Wiedoeft said. “If you graduate valedictorian from a school that’s really high-performing, it holds a lot more water than a school where the 12th-graders are performing at a fifth-grade level.”

After staff got the word out, “everyone was just all in and tried their best,” Wiedoeft said, and the school went from a score in 2015 well below the district average to strong scores well above the average. The school does have some demographics that are not as challenging as the district’s — it has a 64 percent poverty rate compared to 77 percent for the district, and 9 percent English learners compared to 27 percent for the district as a whole.

The school’s 2016 scores topped both the district and state averages. The scores compared to a 39 percent proficiency rate for the district overall on the ELA test and a 28 percent proficiency rate on the math test. Venice scores are also better than the state average, which saw 49 percent of students score proficient in English and 37 percent score proficient in math.

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