Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007 | Students at San Diego public schools made little headway in moving toward proficiency in their core subjects last year, with the San Diego Unified School District posting mixed results on annual test scores released Wednesday.

The new numbers are based on how well students did on examinations administered last spring through California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting Program last spring. Under the state’s system for measuring student achievement, each pupil receives one of five possible scores — advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic — indicating their knowledge of a specific content area. Under federal law, all students must attain proficiency in math and language arts by 2014 or their schools face a series of escalating sanctions.

The scores showed that fewer San Diego students displayed mastery of math in 2007 than had done so a year ago, with 39 percent of students recording above basic knowledge of the subject on the tests. The number represented a 1 percent decline from last year, and lagged behind San Diego County as a whole and the state, which had 44 percent and 41 percent of students scoring at or above proficiency, respectively. San Diego Unified is the second-largest school system in the state and one of more than 40 local districts that are overseen by the county Office of Education.

In English, the district posted a 1 percent year-to-year increase in the number of students reaching proficiency, at 45 percent. Forty-three percent of all California students reached proficiency, also a 1 percent increase, while the districts in San Diego County saw the number of students reaching the same achievement level in math rise to 49 percent, an increase of 2 percent compared to a year ago.

The results were eagerly awaited by the district, and many in San Diego Unified expected that they would represent the first empirical measure of the effectiveness of Superintendent Carl Cohn’s efforts to raise student achievement. Though Cohn arrived in San Diego in 2005, he spent much of his first year reorganizing the school system and installing aides in key positions, changes that education observers did not expect to begin bearing fruit until this year.

Overall, the results suggested that the changes under the Cohn administration have resulted in few noticeable gains in test scores to date. Though San Diego Unified has seen its scores rise significantly since the turn of the century, the growth has slowed significantly since Cohn took over, a pattern mirrored in the rest of the state. Most importantly, the annual assessment showed that the district made little headway in closing the gap in achievement between San Diego Unified’s highest achieving students, most of them white and Asian, and its under-represented minorities, one of Cohn’s primary goals.

“These are Carl’s numbers,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura, explaining that the scores were a reflection of the superintendent’s performance in the district.

“They’re not as strong as I would want them to be, and I’m concerned that we’re losing momentum,” she said.

Nakamura said she believes the annual scores indicate a change in priorities on the part of the district, including less emphasis on professional training for its teachers and staff. She said the school board will consider the test results when it carries out its second annual evaluation of Cohn in the next several months. Last year, the superintendent won unanimous praise and acclaim from the board for his work.

“The evaluation of the superintendent clearly includes these numbers, and they will be a part of the discussion,” she said.

Cohn did not return calls for comment Wednesday, though he said in an official statement that the district is “headed in the right direction, but our schools must work hard to accelerate these gains and narrow the achievement gap.”

Cohn’s deputy, Geno Flores, appeared at a press conference with state Superintendent of Instruction Jack O’Connell, and both praised San Diego’s Jackson Elementary School for raising the scores of its under-represented and lowest-achieving students.

Flores said the numbers showed that the district as a whole was working hard on increasing student academic achievement.

“We know we’re on the right track, and we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

In an interview, Flores said he expects the full effect of the district’s organization to begin being felt next year, when the superintendent’s latest hires settle into their new positions.

“Certainly, I would have liked to have seen a greater improvement in our student performance. Am I frustrated? Not yet,” he said of this year’s scores. “Next year, if we’re at exactly the same performance [levels], I will be really frustrated as well as professionally disappointed.”

Some of Cohn’s other supporters agreed that it may still be too early to pass judgment on the superintendent’s work.

A retired Navy officer, school board member Shelia Jackson compared Cohn’s reforms in the district to the slow turning of a large aircraft carrier: though the change may be substantial, the real effects will likely not be visible to those on board until several years into the future.

“You have to look at the big picture,” Jackson said. “And the big picture is that we moved forward.”

Teachers union President Camille Zombro, who has praised Cohn’s management style and philosophical approach, said it would be wrong to focus the credit or criticism for the pace of academic achievement on one person, pointing out that Cohn has devolved much of his oversight authority to a new layer of administrators who are in charge of governing various geographic regions of the city’s school system.

“There is no one thing you could say Dr. Cohn has done around the district, other than put a new structure in place,” Zombro said.

The new scores indicate that the district has seen a slowdown in its student achievement gains in recent years. Between 2001 and 2007, the number of students scoring at or above proficient in both math and English has jumped by 14 percent, though nearly all of the increases happened prior to 2006. Speaking at the press conference, O’Connell, the state’s top elected education official, said San Diego has not been the only district to experience the decline in momentum.

“It shouldn’t really be too surprising,” he said. “Many of the biggest gains have already been made.”

In a fact sheet released by its communications staff, the district said its math scores, though showing year-to-year decline, still represented significant gains when compared to the recent past. It also pointed out that the school system has done better than most major urban districts in the state, though two of the largest districts — Long Beach and Fresno — have yet to report their scores.

However, Nakamura said it was important to look past the numbers alone, at what the test scores say about the experience of San Diego’s students.

“There are children who didn’t get the education they needed this year, and that’s really tragic,” she said. “It is something we’re going to focus our efforts on.”

(Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the San Francisco Unified School District has not yet submitted its test results. We regret the error.)

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