‘The data is miserable’: LAUSD board members rake academic officer over the coals for ‘crisis’ in test scores
Mike Szymanski | September 13, 2016
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LA Unified’s chief academic officer came before board members Tuesday with an upbeat-titled report called “Breaking Our Own Records,” but instead of resting on the improvement in overall test scores, the four school board members in attendance grilled her for nearly two hours throwing out terms like “frustrating,” “depressing” and “disappointing” and saying the district is in “crisis” when educating certain segments of the student population.
“I had to say this because it depressed me as an educator and after eight years I was told it was going to get better, and I’ve been assured it will get better,” said board member Richard Vladovic, chairman of the Curriculum, Instruction and Educational Equity Committee that met Tuesday. “I’m most concerned about those children not getting what they deserve, and that is quality education.”
Board member George McKenna said, “I’m as frustrated as I can possibly be. The data is miserable. Test scores are still almost embarrassingly low. It is continually depressing and disappointing.”
The committee was discussing the list of lowest performing schools and other test score numbers that the district was touting as “breaking our records!”
Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson pointed out that the district’s record 75 percent graduation rate is up from 72 percent last year, and she showed other upward trends in the Smarter Balanced Assessments. She also noted that 265 schools are now participating in the Early Language and Literacy Plan, up from 85 in the 2015-16 school year.
“Some of the scores are record-breaking, but we have not hit the finish line yet,” Gipson said. “Our goal for graduation is 100 percent.”
Gipson tried to paint a positive spin repeating district catchphrases including “A District on the Move” and “All Hands on Deck” used by Superintendent Michelle King. But the four of seven board members on the committee were having none of it. Other members of the committee included representatives of three unions and USC and UCLA.
She pointed again to the increase in students meeting or exceeding English Language Arts standards, to 39 percent, up from 33 percent last year. Math scores rose to 29 percent from 25 percent in 2014-2015.
But then came the board members’ harsh reaction to zero improvement for English learners’ math scores: only 5 percent met standards, and only 4 percent met English standards, up one point. There was no improvement for students with disabilities: 6 percent met math standards two years in a row, and 8 percent met English standards.
Gipson said some successes were made through personalization of graduation goals and a dozen different types of interventions. “We are assessing what worked best for students and are accelerating that while eliminating things that did not work best.”
Another new number showed that 42 percent of students received a C grade or better in each of the 15 required A through G courses. Even though students can graduate by getting a D in those classes, Gipson said they want to strive for a C grade or better. California’s public universities require a C or better in those classes.
School board President Steve Zimmer said, “I want to ask staff what specific crisis we are addressing? What do we need to see in due time? We need to reflect the urgency to see some positive results in continuing areas of inequity and our failure for public education.”
Zimmer said the board needs to hear “some type of strategy plan and urgency and honest feedback of what we need to do.”
Gipson had staff members from Beyond the Bell, Counseling Services and the Charter Schools Division ready to explain other recent successes in various departments but cut some of the presentations short as the board members asked her questions for nearly two hours.
“This group does represent a sense of urgency,” Gipson responded. “We have taken some bold steps.”
Gipson said she plans to report back with how some of those bold plans are working at school sites.
“We have a crisis with our youngsters and our youngsters need the very best, and if we are paying someone 15 percent more why aren’t they concentrated in schools that need it the most?” asked Vladovic. “There needs to be a concentrated plan. We are in the process of being confronted with a budget crisis that we have never confronted before, and people don’t know that.”
Vladovic was particularly concerned with Long Term English Speakers who have scored persistently at 23 percent and never higher. “I feel like we have written them off,” he said.
Board member Scott Schmerelson echoed that, saying, “I’m not concerned about the cracks in the system, but the craters.” He also referred to students continuing from fifth to sixth grades or eighth grade to high school without the appropriate skill sets.
McKenna pointed out that some schools celebrate successes while African-Americans and poor children are still failing. “Is it that these poor children have gangs, or don’t have a momma or a daddy, or there’s no literacy at home? I got all that! So, what are the extreme measures that we should do?”
McKenna pointed to math scores, for example, that showed 18 percent of African-Americans and 23 percent of Latinos exceeding standards while Asians hit 70 percent, Filipinos hit 56 percent and whites were at 57 percent. Economically disadvantaged students scored 23 percent compared to 50 percent for non-economically disadvantaged.
McKenna, the only African-American on the school board, added, “Girls do better than boys and African-American males are at the bottom of the ladder. Am I surprising anyone? Absolutely not! What else can we do? Do we tell them to sing and dance and play baseball?”
McKenna said the district must focus on middle schools because only then “graduation becomes an aspiration rather than an illusion.”
Gipson pointed to working with the community colleges, using block schedules, holding twilight classes, getting grants and creating a director of innovation to review what is working in education. She also said a new dashboard computer program allows teachers to quickly figure out what each student needs to improve on the most.
Gipson said her team “ended some curriculum chaos” by pulling together many different teams and figuring out how to support each other. The district tripled their work in English language development. Gipson said the district saw a large drop in reclassification percentages because of changes in state accountability, and, because the year is from October to October, she said she expects some better numbers in a few weeks.
Zimmer said, “I think we are on the right path, but I want to caution that if we want to eradicate the school readiness gap we have to see the literacy foundation results” and see how early learning initiatives are directly linked to early elementary and math initiatives.
“We need to align the resources with the neediest students,” Gipson said.
One of the committee members, Mojgan Moazzez, principal of Logan Street Elementary School and representing AALA, the principal’s union, praised Gipson and said, “I have personally seen how she works with schools and has allocated resources where it is needed.”
The school board members wanted to see a more precise plan of action to help the lowest-performing students.
“And if we believe in the plan, why not have the plan anchor our approach?” Zimmer asked.
Vladovic added, “We need to see a plan rather than wishes of what we want to do. We need to shore up those youngsters and need a timeline and expected outcomes and what will happen if they are not achieved. We have to make a change.”
“We are doing it now,” Gipson said.
Vladovic continued, “We want to see some real particulars in what you’re doing. I truly believe all kids can learn. It’s our fault, … not theirs. I’m hoping you’ll do it. Let’s not just wait.”
After the meeting, Gipson was asked if the board seemed particularly harsh.
She answered, “We all want better. We have done better. We have a way to go.”