Mixed marks for school scores

This week saw the start of California’s annual school test result season, and the trends were as confusingly mixed as ever. Statewide English proficiency averages inched up one point to 43 percent this year, while mathematics competency held steady at 41 percent.

But this means more than half of all California students are still learning below grade level, which is not happy news. Even more disturbing is that the proficiency numbers for African-American and Hispanic students remain consistently lower than those for whites and Asians.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell stated bluntly that the learning discrepancy cannot be attributed to lower-income homes, because the ethnic scores do not correlate closely with results from students enrolled in federal lunch subsidies.

O’Connell pledged to focus on the tenacious problem like a “heat-seeking missile” and called for a Sacramento conference in November to seek solutions. In typically reflexive responses, student advocates quickly blamed the ethnic lag on systemwide school failures while education activists called for higher academic spending.

However, neither of these theories accounts for the fact that some schools in lower-funded districts with student bodies that are largely minority and non-native English speakers perform impressively better than average. While every California child should have decent school facilities and learning materials, it would seem that successful school examples are already widely available here and just need to be copied more widely by the educational establishment.

The scores released Wednesday were the California Standards Test, which measures the percentage of students at a school who meet or exceed proficiency levels for their proper grade. The High School Exit Exam numbers come next week and the combined Academic Performance Index is two weeks away.

In San Francisco and San Mateo County, Standards Test scores were somewhat higher than the statewide averages, as has been the case in past years. But no Bay Area-wide major breakthroughs are reported, and the 2007 local results reflect those wider California problems.

For the fifth consecutive year, the San Francisco Unified School District was California’s highest-ranking urban district. City students scored 49 percent in English this year and 58 percent in math, a steady annual improvement. Yet this still means roughly half of all SFUSD students are not learning at grade level. And the lower-performing ethnic subgroup gap is as wide as ever.

Virtually the same trends hold true across the Peninsula’s 15 school districts. Most schools improved their scores by a few points. There were a few star performances and some declines. Overall, San Mateo County percentages were uniformly higher than statewide averages. But the Peninsula was not exempt from California’s nagging half-below-grade and ethnic disparity problems.

The CliffsNotes summary of all this is that California student scores are slowly improving, but major flaws linger and structural education reforms are needed.

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