Wednesday, September 14, 2005 | Saying the goal is not to close the achievement gap but to eliminate it altogether, San Diego County educators presented figures Tuesday showing significant improvement in California High School Exit Exam passing rates for San Diego County Latino and African-American students in 2005.

CAHSEE passing rates for the math portion of the test for Latino and African-American students in 2005 was 14 percent less than for white and Asian students, down from 25 percent in 2004 and 37 percent in 2003, said Ed Brand, superintendent of the San Marcos Unified School District, at a press conference at the San Diego County Office of Education.

The achievement gap refers to the difference in academic performance between white and Asian students on the one hand, and Latino and African-American students on the other hand, said San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Rudy Castruita.

To address the disparity, county officials established an Achievement Gap Task Force in 2003, chaired by Brand, which enlisted the support of superintendents and educators from all 42 county school districts. The task force has been devoting considerable attention and resources to closing the gap in academic achievement among student subgroups, a gap most educators say stems from inequities in income levels, educational opportunities and societal expectations.

In 2003, the task force examined the data and found that 69 percent of white and Asian students had passed the math portion of the CAHSEE, whereas only 32 percent of Latino and African-American students had.

The challenge, Brand said, was “to accelerate the students who were not doing well and make sure they reached the benchmark.”

The 2003 test data examined by the task force indicated that 69 percent of students passed the language arts portion but only 48 percent passed the math portion of the CAHSEE.

Brand said the task force chose the math portion of the CAHSEE as a benchmark “because back in 2003 we weren’t doing a very good job across the board, but we were doing better in English and language arts than math. So [we decided to] tackle the tough one first.”

Calling the improvement dramatic, Brand said the latest data was “great news” and credited the “purposeful, relentless effort” by the education community. “Even more dramatic is that the success rate is at 90 percent now (for all students),” he said. “You can see constant improvement … but the heavy lifting is still to occur,” because of the 10 percent of under-achieving students who “through no fault of their own have special challenges.” Many of these students, he said, are English language learners and special education children, some with severe disabilities.

Brand said he and task force members are proud of the progress in three years, “but we still have miles to go before we sleep.”

A number of strategies were put into place to address the issue, Brand said, including rigorous standards, intensive math training for teachers, aligning curriculum with state standards and the test, offering extended learning time such as tutoring before and after school and on Saturdays, and timely monitoring and dissemination of results.

Superintendent Tom Bishop of the Del Mar Union School District, which serves students in grades kindergarten through sixth, expressed concern for his students who go on to high school and are unable to pass the CAHSEE.

“The Del Mar Union School District has some of the highest achievement scores in the county and the state,” he said. “Yet we saw an achievement gap that needed our attention.”

He said local high schools had failing 10th-graders who were former Del Mar students.

Last school year, Bishop took his district’s summer school money and applied it to a new program that ran during and after school from January through April of 2005. The program targeted 251 second- through sixth-grade students, many of whom he said were special education students and English Language learners who had not achieved proficiency on statewide exams.

Of those students, Bishop said 63 percent reached state standards of proficiency in math, based on the results of tests administered by the state last spring. He called the new program successful and plans to continue using it for struggling Del Mar students.

This is not just a high-school problem, said Castruita, commending the superintendents of elementary school districts who were not initially included but who asked to participate in the task force’s mission. “I applaud the elementary superintendents,” he said. “They insisted to be part of this effort.”

The problem “has its roots in the K-8 structure,” and students “need to pass the CAHSEE on the first try, which has to be the goal for our current elementary and middle school programs,” Bishop said.

“Passing the test is not a high school problem,” said Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District. “It is a kindergarten through grade 12 problem.” He acknowledged that the issue “is much more complex” for those school districts that are not unified and only serve elementary or high school students.

Noonan said he uses a “range of tactics” and “will mobilize every possible resource” in Oceanside to close the achievement gap. He has been focusing on staff development, devoting “an impressive amount of time and money into training our teachers.”

Another approach being used by county superintendents is to provide individual learning programs and specialized attention to students who need more help. Brand said there were about 40 to 50 failing students at each county high school who can be given individualized attention. Castruita said there are “no excuses for youngsters not passing” and educators can now “zero in on those individuals.”

Under state law, students are required to pass both portions of the CAHSEE starting in 2006 to receive a high school diploma. Of the 35,800 San Diego County high school seniors this year, the county estimates that about 10 percent have still not passed the high-stakes exam.

When the countywide numbers are sorted by sub-groups, however, the achievement gap becomes apparent. Of Asian students, 97 percent have passed the CAHSEE, as have 96 percent of whites. But only 81 percent of African-Americans and 83 percent of Latinos have passed.

Seventy percent of English language learners, those students who do not speak English as their primary language, have passed the test. Eighty-two percent of economically disadvantaged students have passed the CAHSEE, and 64 percent of students receiving special education services have passed.

“The goal is not a simple one,” said Castruita, calling it a “tremendous challenge” to eliminate the achievement gap completely. “The work is both challenging and long-term.”

But he applauded the focused effort by the task force and school districts, all 42 of which were represented at the press conference Tuesday, and said the county was the “only region in the state of California and in the nation where every school district and superintendent and governing board has committed to a single set of tactics to address and close the achievement gap.”

Saying it was the American dream to graduate from high school, Castruita pledged to continue the work of overcoming the effects of poverty and other inequities in education.

“We take this assignment very seriously,” Noonan said.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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