Patt Morrison for May 24, 2011

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It’s often hard for students to see the benefit of doing well on standardized tests. It’s more obvious to school officials: proposed teacher evaluation systems tie teacher tenure to these tests; low test scores can ultimately shutter schools; and even Superintendent John Deasy’s salary depends on those numbers. The LAUSD is now aiming to make it more glaringly apparent to students, by tying their performance on the California Standards Tests (CST) to their grades. If students at 39 L.A. campuses improve their test scores by one achievement category, they’ll see their Grade Point Average (GPA) jump a whole grade. A pilot program at Jefferson High in south LA saw significant improvement last year, with ¼ of its students boosting at least one grade with a bump on their CST scores. How effective are these incentive programs? Schools in Dallas and Washington have even started offering cash rewards for a job well done, but critics worry this is “teaching to the test” and only temporarily motivates students. Is that alone maybe enough?
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It was a big part of the enforcement side of President Obama’s immigration policy that was intended to target hardened criminals amongst the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. Secure Communities is designed to identify and deport illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes—the fingerprints of people booked into a jail are sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and if they are found to be undocumented, they face deportation. The problem is that, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security itself, over half of those deporting under Secure Communities had minor or no criminal convictions. The program was further muddled when there was confusion about whether it was voluntary or mandatory for states and local law enforcement agencies to participate. States across the country, including California, are moving to opt-out of the program and last week DHS agreed to conduct an internal review. Is this the right way to go about deporting illegal immigrants?
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Have you ever speculated about whether the quality of life is better in San Francisco or Los Angeles? Well now we have some empirical evidence (not based solely on who won the World Series) that gives Northern California bragging rights. A first-ever study called A Portrait of California conducted by the American Human Development Project took a close look at well-being and access to opportunity in the Golden State and ranked cities based on issues like health, education and standard of living. The results? San Francisco scored a 6.97, Los Angeles a 5.52 and the Silicon Valley was the big winner earning a 9.35. The study notes that some residents in California are so far ahead of the other states in the nation that they won't catch up until 2060, while others are experiencing "health, education and earnings levels that characterized the U.S. in the 1960s." California's can expect to live a longer life than those living in other states in the nation, but "100 of California's nearly 2,500 high schools account for nearly half of the state's dropouts" and "men earn more than women in every racial and ethnic group." What does the evidence show about your city?
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Genetically test your kids for “sports gene?”

As parents feel more and more pressure to give their children as many competitive advantages as possible, a couple companies are now offering, for just $200, a genetic test to determine which sports your child will be best at. Coming in the form of an online order and mail-in cheek swab, these tests tell you which percentile your child is in with regard to his or her potential for endurance training versus for speed and strength training. The results also reveal whether or not your child is genetically predisposed to be at risk for concussions and cardiac failure. However, geneticists are skeptical of just how accurate these readings are. Are genetic tests such as this sports gene test ready to be on the market? As mail-order and Internet DNA scans become more in demand, is it possible that more damage than good is being done with hard-to-read and possibly misleading test results? Could these sports gene tests help kids move towards success in sports more quickly and safely? Or will they mislead, mislabel, and possibly discourage kids who have athletic aspirations or who just want to have fun?
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The numbers are startling and the reasons behind them depressing. According to analysis of 2010 census numbers by Dowell Myers, who directs the USC Population Dynamics Research Group, the number of households shared by unmarried couples in California has spiked by 32 percent since 2000; households headed by single fathers have increased by 17 percent in the same period; and perhaps most surprisingly, Los Angeles County has lost 21 percent of its children aged five to nine. These numbers reflect difficult living conditions in a state and region with high unemployment, high housing costs and diminishing social services – all of which push young families to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Added to the mix is an upswing in the number of residents 45 and older, and you see a state on the extreme edge of a nationwide trend toward an aging population. What does this all mean as California tries to recover from a long-lasting economic downturn and a budget deficit that defies fixing?
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A new Nature study looking at bacteria systems growing in the gut divides people into three groups. Similar to the way blood types divide people into four groups, the new research finds there are three distinct bacteria ecosystems that transcend sex, weight, health, age and race. It’s not clear yet whether these bacteria types are hereditary or whether they randomly colonize our guts as infants and stick around for the rest of our lives, but they could hold some big keys to personalized medicine. Understanding our bacteria type could aid in more precisely predicting a patient’s disease susceptibility and drug efficacy, to more accurately tailoring our diets.
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