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Wondering why San Diego scores stagnated on a national test at the same time its state test scores jumped?

I sure was. Ron Rode, the research czar for San Diego Unified, gave us one theory: The national test just sets the bar higher than the state tests do. That’s one explanation. Here are others from folks I chatted with:

• Nellie Meyer, the interim deputy superintendent for San Diego Unified, offered an intriguing version of Rode’s theory. Not only is the national test more challenging, it measures different, deeper skills, such as interpreting and synthesizing a written text. So students could shine on a state test that measures simpler thinking at the same time they show few gains on the national exam.

Interestingly, this is exactly what the school board has been pushing for San Diego Unified to do: Focus more on creativity and critical thinking instead of the simpler skills that tests tend to measure.

“We need to stretch students’ thinking,” Meyer said.

• Julian Betts, who heads the economics department at the University of California, San Diego, was as intrigued by the mismatch as I was. He proposed two opposing theories, one optimistic, one pessimistic.

The pessimistic theory is that San Diego Unified is just getting better at teaching to the state test. The optimistic theory is that the national exam is, well, a different test, and so it measures different things. That may not mean they’re more important — just different. San Diego Unified could still be improving.

Which theory is right? Betts said he’s not sure.

• Finally, the Union-Tribune quoted David Gordon, who sits on the governing board for the national exam, as saying San Diego Unified “has kind of been stuck” because of its revolving door for superintendents: “Consistency with leadership, curriculum and teaching is a trend among urban districts that have made the most gains in reading scores, said Gordon, who is also the Sacramento County superintendent of schools.”

Could leadership churn have cramped scores on the national exam? It makes sense, but it doesn’t explain why state scores would have risen at the same time.

I’m not done yet. Check back on our blog for more ideas on what the scores mean.

— EMILY ALPERT

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