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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Results Count in Los Angeles

Schools in Los Angeles are working together on standards-based reform and sharing student results to ensure high academic achievement.

In the Los Angeles Unified Public School District, 64 percent of its 660 schools increased their norm-referenced test scores from 1998 to 1999. What accounts for the improved academic achievement? Two key elements: a clear, districtwide approach to standards-based learning and broad-based communication about student and school gains.
In its Results Count! publication (1998), the L.A. school district shares reports from successful schools, highlighting the evidence of improved academic performance and explanations of practices. Though many schools choose their own paths to guide students to academic achievement, they all share key similarities. To examine the elements of improved student learning, we looked at the district's greatest success story of the year: Bancroft Middle School.

The Bancroft Story

Bancroft is a regular and performing arts middle school located on the border between Los Angeles and Hollywood. Of its 1,500 students, 85 percent participate in the federal lunch program. Sixty-seven percent are Hispanic, 18 percent are white (primarily Armenian and Russian), 10 percent are African American, 4 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Filipino. Bancroft has an extensive after-school program, a Saturday school with an enrollment of more than 300 students, and a parent education program. The school has established relationships with such community partners as Kodak and the Disney Channel.
What makes Bancroft rise to the top is not just its program choices; many schools throughout the district have implemented the same elements of reform. Bancroft is successful because it implements all the elements of systemic reform. No wonder, then, that among the 423 similarly sized, high-poverty middle schools in the state, Bancroft scored seventh in mathematics growth and fifth in reading growth.
Tim Miller and Marcia Haskin, the principal and assistant principal, respectively, attribute the gains in their students' scores to the sense of purpose that the school has created to raise test scores. On the first day of school, teachers examined the Stanford 9 scores from the previous year, determined the areas of strengths and weaknesses, and designed instruction on the basis of their findings by analyzing the assessment results and by linking them to the academic standards. Teachers developed and shared models, tested them in the classrooms, and refined them accordingly. The principals evaluated the lessons in relation to the same set of standards. Teachers evaluated student work according to rubrics.
For all—principals, teachers, students, and parents—expectations for student work and learning were clear. Improved test scores were also a common goal, and the commitment and camaraderie resulting from this focus were visible throughout the school.

Effective District Practices

This focus on results is responsible for successes—not only at Bancroft but throughout the district. According to former Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, the L.A. district schools are experiencing increasing successes because of a concentrated focus on student achievement.
The district developed "Continuums of School Practices" to offer schools a systemic process for establishing, developing, and maintaining practices. The continuums identify measures of specific components that schools may implement to advance standards-based education efforts, from beginning to developmental to exemplary stages.
Additionally, schools that have accomplished exemplary results in any of the five components of the continuums are formally commended; showcased in Results Count!; and recognized at the beginning of each Board of Education meeting, televised monthly. Through this process, schools can learn from one another. In addition, each site mentioned in the publication agrees to serve as a resource for others. District-level administrators do not tell schools how they should achieve success—they leave that decision to school-based educators. Sharing results, in turn, encourages peer recognition.
We see two commonalties. First, achievement improved when school time, energy, and resources were explicitly and consistently focused on strengthening the instructional program through collaborative efforts. Second, in schools that systematically used the Standards-Based Instructional Model (Los Angeles Unified School District, 1997), student achievement increased, both in terms of scores on norm-referenced tests and student grades on class work.
Throughout implementation, the district encourages reevaluation and open discussion. At many junctures, the district administers comprehensive surveys. In the most recent survey, approximately 10,000 randomly selected teachers reported on their implementation practices. The information is helpful not only to the district administrators but also to other schools. Schools can use the survey data as pre- and postassessments of their progress on the continuums.
By publicizing the survey findings at the school and district levels, and by responding to the suggestions for improvement, both the district administrators and the school-based educators play an important role in crafting the standards-implementation process for the district. Because schools center discussions on the same goals and focus on student achievement, the district can emphasize student learning through mutual accomplishment rather than from a top-down reform.

A Results-Driven Approach

  • Align curriculum to student learning standards.
  • Develop meaningful and fair assessments to measure achievement of the standards.
  • Promote professional development opportunities to support using standards and assessment to improve instruction.
  • Establish student-parent-school-community partnerships to support achievement of the standards.
  • Implement systemwide processes for the continual evaluation and improvement of student achievement.

Curriculum and Instruction Results

Since 1996, the L.A. school district has adopted academic content standards, developed in collaboration with the Council for Basic Education, in the areas of the arts, career preparation/technical arts, English/language arts, health education, history/social science, mathematics, physical education, and science.
The district's standards-driven effort did not end with the engagement of almost 60,000 constituents in the development of the standards; with the publication of the standards in the local newspapers; with pamphlet distribution to all students and parents; or with the wall charts posted in every classroom, displaying the benchmarked standards to be formally tested in elementary, middle, and senior high school. Rather, at this point, the standards-driven system came to life.
A kindergarten teacher shared with other teachers the value and impact that scoring guides had in her classroom. In class, the teacher held up a drawing of a scene outside the classroom and explained to the kindergartners what parts of the drawing gave a clear picture of the environment outside their school. She explained what elements the students needed to include in their drawings to receive the highest score of 4.
"Notice how this drawing shows the ground colored green and brown," she said. "There are also a tree, the sky, some clouds, and the sun." When she held up a second drawing, she explained how it was similar to the first, but the tree, the clouds, and the sun weren't as clearly defined. That was why the drawing received a score of 3.
As she discussed the next two drawings, the students started to point out what was missing and noted that they only deserved a score of 2 or 1. Then the teacher instructed the students to do two things: first, to create artwork that met the requirements of the level-4 drawing and, second, to ask another student to evaluate the work and to agree on which of the four posted samples the drawing most resembled. She asked that both students write their names next to the score. She also told students that they would spend class time improving their drawings until all the students' pictures either met the level-4 rubric or went up at least one level in the rubrics.

Standards-Based Instructional Models

District efforts included curriculum alignment and the development of Standards-Based Instructional Models. We conducted a curriculum alignment to determine what aspects of the current curriculum addressed the new state and district standards and what changes we had to make to direct student learning to standards-based mastery.
We met with 200 teachers from around the district and facilitated the development of the Standards-Based Instructional Model. The process identifies a systematic approach that teachers can use to plan instruction with research-validated practices that accelerate student learning.
The model focuses on what students need to do and lays out a plan for student work. It begins with directions to students, includes a rubric to be shared with students, describes activities in which students should be engaged to complete the culminating task, and lists the resources that students might find helpful. The model provides a consistent way to talk about what is or may be going on in the classroom. It is a departure from the traditional lesson-plan model, which describes what the teacher—rather than what the student—should be doing.
Each model is based on one or two benchmarked content standards and includes supporting information, such as scoring rubrics, instructional activities, resources, and instructions for students. The scoring rubrics provide teachers with a consistent set of criteria to score oral, visual, and written student performances and link to samples of student work.
The models, written for all grade levels and content areas, are available to district teachers through a Web site and in a district publication, Standards-Based Instruction Resource Manual for Educators, Volumes I and II (1997). The lessons identify the teacher-authors so that other district teachers can contact them directly to share their experiences and insights. These models are permeating the district. Of the 10,000 district teachers surveyed this year, approximately 85 percent reported using the sample models to some degree in planning their lessons.

Assessment Results

  • Generic scoring guides. To ensure that student work is assessed with criteria related to the standards, we collaborated with a task force of 55 district teachers. We used the research from the Council for Basic Education's international study of academic work program, Schools Around the World, to develop the guides. Using student work, we identified specific criteria that describe levels of student performance on generic scoring guides. The scoring guides allow teachers to evaluate and score oral, visual, and written student work with consistency.
  • Performance assignments. The district provides these uniform classroom tasks for grades 2, 4, 5, 6, and 8. The assignments measure student achievement of state standards. They are scored with the same criteria districtwide, and teachers are trained to score with consistency.
  • Standards Test to Evaluate Performance of Students (STEPS). This standardized performance-based test is administered at the benchmarked grades of 3, 7, and 9. The test is scored with the same process as the performance assignments.
More than 2,600 teachers analyze the standards and are part of every phase of the project, including pilot testing, developing rubrics, scoring, and designing instructional activities. At the professional development training at each school site, we can see that educators have high levels of understanding of the standards. As a result of the training, teachers develop new classroom assessments on the basis of districtwide measures.

Professional Development

The L.A. students are improving districtwide; however, the Bancroft example had a truly outstanding approach to professional development.
Bancroft teachers spent staff development time conducting a schoolwide analysis of the Stanford 9 test results. In departmental sessions, teachers collaborated on the alignment of curriculum, lessons, and materials, which address specific standards. Using standards-based education funds allocated to every school on a per-pupil and per-educator basis, they budgeted time within each department to finalize the lessons and to prepare the samples of student work, which they presented at faculty meetings.
  • Administrators coached teachers during regular classroom visitations to assist with the implementation of the Standards-Based Instructional Models.
  • Teachers had time during each school day for reading.
  • The school's testing committee administered grade-level practice tests that were aligned to the standards.
  • Teachers used practice-test results as teaching tools for future instruction.
Parental involvement is crucial for raising student achievement. At monthly parent meetings, leaders from Bancroft and other schools explain the importance of parental support in the educational process. Sixty-six percent of the district schools report that they are forging parent-school partnerships. At Bancroft, an entire staff development day is devoted to parent workshops on such topics as reviewing student work, understanding tests, and developing a love of reading in children.

Partnership Results

To build genuine ownership in all those responsible for implementing standards-based education, we formed an oversight group called the Focus on Student Achievement Council. The council consists of 60 representatives from all constituent groups and meets monthly to assess progress and to share expertise and resources. Involving entire communities is crucial to make the efforts work and stick. Some schools that have drawn on the support of parents, community groups, and businesses not only have raised student performance, but have also forged strong community-school partnerships.

Accountability Results

In 1998, the district established a standards-based promotion policy requiring students to demonstrate proficiency of standards to be eligible for promotion beginning in the 1999-2000 school year.
The district has taken a steady and thoughtful systematic approach to improving student achievement. The district's plan acknowledges that people and events do not work in isolation. Working simultaneously and congruently with all practices and recognizing work that results in improved student achievement make up an effective standards-based educational system.
Learning from other schools and sharing stories of success are at the heart of making reform both effective and truly systemic.

Los Angeles Unified School District. (1997). Standards-based instruction resource manual for educators, volumes I and II. Los Angeles: Author.

Los Angeles Unified School District. (1998). Results count! Los Angeles: Author.

Christopher T. Cross has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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