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Why Lodi Unified's smaller 9th-grade English classes are worth saving

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Posted: Friday, May 1, 2009 10:00 pm

As the economic crisis continues, school districts across the state are making difficult decisions to balance their budgets.

Lodi Unified's Board of Education and administrators are currently in the process of making such grim decisions, placing many district programs on the chopping block.

One program recommended for elimination is class size reduction for ninth-grade English. Currently, freshmen English classes are capped at a 20-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio; however, were class size reduction to be eliminated, the ratio would increase greatly, likely to reach at least 32-1. Such a development should be alarming for teachers and parents alike, not only because there is data within the district to support that program's ability to raise test scores, but also because of the support that smaller English classes offer students during a pivotal year in their educational career.

Class-size reduction programs are most often associated with the elementary grades; research has shown such programs effective in improving student achievement. However, the body of research on similar programs at the high school level is scant and inconclusive.

On the advice of a colleague, I looked up English Language Arts scores on the California Standards Test (CST) for the classes of 2008, 2009, and 2010 at Tokay, Lodi and Bear Creek High Schools, and the classes of 2009, 2010, and 2011 at McNair High School on the California Department of Education's Web site.

I followed these students' scores from the seventhto their tenth-grade years (except for the class of 2011, whose tenth-grade scores will be reported this summer), culling scores from each high school as well as its primary feeder school.

In particular, I analyzed the "mean scaled scores" for each group; a percentage breakdown that classifies a student's mastery of grade-level English standards as advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, or far below basic. These scores give a clear picture of students' academic progress over time.

What I found after analyzing the data was truly eye-opening. At each of the four comprehensive high schools in Lodi Unified, there is a noticeable spike in English CST scores in the ninth grade that trails off in subsequent years. This spike is evident yearly. For example, at Lodi High, 14 percent of the class of 2010 scored "advanced" on the English CST during the seventh grade. In eighth grade, 17 percent of these students scored in the same category. During their freshman year, the number jumped to 25 percent. The following year, it dropped to 18 percent. Similar score spikes and subsequent drop-offs are evident at Tokay, Bear Creek and McNair high schools.

When considering these figures, it is important to realize that the only quantifiable difference between ninth-grade English classes and any other sevenththrough eleventh-grade English class is the student-to-teacher ratio. As such, there is consistent data within Lodi Unified that ninth-grade class size reduction works for increasing student test scores. However, student performance on standardized tests is not the only, nor perhaps the most compelling, reason to retain class size reduction.

The move to high school is a difficult one for many students, and smaller English classes make this transition smoother. In a class of 20, a teacher is able to give each student more one-on-one time, helping students to build their academic skills in preparation for the high school exit exam they will take their sophomore year, as well as Senior Project. For students moving from a small middle school to a large high school, such personal attention cannot be underestimated.

Freshman year sets the tone for high school and lays a critical academic foundation for all four years. An effective program that directly impacts student achievement is about to be eliminated. If you have a child who will be entering high school, soon or any time in the future, speak up - ninth-grade class size reduction is worth saving.

Janie Cunningham is an English teacher at Tokay High School.

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