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Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009 | More students scored high on California tests this spring in San Diego Unified than ever before, according to newly released data heralded by Superintendent Terry Grier as “very impressive” and the highest since the testing began.

It is the first time that more than half of the district’s students have scored high in English. The goal in California is for all students to score “proficient;” they can excel by scoring “advanced.” Fifty-two percent of San Diego Unified students earned a score of proficient or higher, compared to 47 percent last year and 45 percent the year before. The youngest students had some of the biggest gains, stunning school leaders.

Math scores surged too. And science scores saw the largest improvement overall in San Diego Unified, from 42 percent to 49 percent of students scoring proficient or higher in 2009 compared to 2008.

The school district continued to outscore the state average in English as it has for years, despite having a higher percentage of disadvantaged students than California on the whole. It matched the state average in math for the first time in five years. Its English scores ranked 2nd in the state among large urban districts, bested only by San Francisco, and its math and science scores ranked 3rd.

The boosted scores are especially remarkable in light of the budget cuts that the school district suffered this year. They are gleaned from math, science, history and English tests taken by children in grades 2-11 this spring. The scores are one of the primary building blocks used to calculate whether schools make the grade under No Child Left Behind and the California scoring system, which also includes other tests. Such tests have grown more and more significant in schools under No Child Left Behind and promise to remain important as President Barack Obama touts linking such tests to teacher evaluation and pay.

But the gains may not be enough under No Child Left Behind. Whether San Diego Unified and other school districts will meet the rising bar of the federal law is still an open question as California pushes the standard for success higher and higher. Those calculations will not be complete for several weeks.

And despite the gains, the achievement gap has not narrowed significantly between students of different races and different means in San Diego Unified — a pattern that mirrors the ongoing achievement gap across California. While African American and Latino students in San Diego Unified got higher scores than last year, so did white and Asian students, leaving the gap intact.

The scores are nonetheless a major coup for Grier, who joined San Diego Unified last spring as it grappled with budget cuts. They reflect his first full year leading the school district. He credited the boost to setting clearer, concrete goals for principals; a new computer system that helps organize data from tests created by the school district and get it to teachers sooner; and simply good teaching.

“It is a laser-like focus on instruction,” Grier said.

And he believes the boost in elementary English schools could be the result of just getting kids to school. Improving attendance, a major push for Grier, has been shown to trigger major increases in test scores, particularly among kids whose first language isn’t English. He plans to screen the data to check if higher attendance rates seem to match the gains. Joyner Elementary, for instance, which nudged kids to school through a program in which children run their own miniature economy and government, saw 11 percent more students become proficient in English and 16 percent more succeed in math.

Another initiative, a pilot program that introduced smaller classes for students in grades K-2, has yet to show significant results on state tests. That isn’t unexpected: Kindergartners and 1st graders are not tested, so the results of giving them more teacher attention may not be evident until years later.

Though superintendents are most often tagged for scores, good or bad, the sunny scores are also good news for the school board, which tilted toward a new majority that is more sympathetic to the teachers union in November. Though the new board has often countered Grier, siding against him on controversial ideas such as tying test scores to how teachers are evaluated, the upped scores are likely to be seen as a reflection of both their steering of the school district and Grier’s leadership.

Some schools did exceptionally well: Test scores skyrocketed at Edison Elementary in City Heights, where 20 percent more students are now scoring proficient or higher in English and 22 percent more are proficient in math compared to last year. Science scores also grew, with 5 percent more children snagging high scores. Principal Tavga Bustani, who joined the school last year, was thrilled by the results.

“We’ve become much more data savvy this year and the data is transparent” to parents and teachers, Bustani said. The new computer system Grier touted “has been instrumental in providing data in a timely manner — timely feedback for teachers. Once they receive the data, we act immediately.”

Scores also surged at Correia Middle School in Point Loma across the board. Principal Patricia Ladd, formerly of the lauded Keiller Leadership Academy, said data were also crucial to her school’s success. Students created goals for themselves, echoing the goals that Ladd and her staff created for the school, and classes competed against each other to get the highest scores on weekly tests. State Superintendent Jack O’Connell is visiting the school today to reveal statewide scores.

“Kids developed an attitude that it was kind of cool to succeed,” Ladd said.

Though gains were widespread, the scores differed dramatically from school to school. Bell Middle School, for instance, saw fewer of its students make the grade in English, history, math and science. Marshall Middle in Cypress Canyon continued to score high, but the percentage of students scoring proficient actually dropped this year in all subjects.

High school math scores were a bleak spot. Ron Rode, program manager for monitoring and accountability, said algebra “traditionally has been a struggle.” Only 15 percent of high school juniors and 14 percent of sophomores scored proficient or higher in math. The numbers grew overall but remained dismal compared to math scores in elementary and middle school. And English scores among English learners are still disappointing, Grier said. The numbers are especially low in high school.

“Needless to say, we are very pleased with ourselves,” Grier said of the overall numbers. But he later added, “We still have miles to go.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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