Budget cuts made for bigger classes and fewer supplies in San Diego Unified this year.

A new superintendent was criticized as being weak on instructional savvy. Critics seeking to overhaul the district have called it an outright failure.

Yet state test scores jumped once again in San Diego Unified schools, rivaling their impressive gains last year:

• Fifty-six percent of students scored high in English, nearly 4 percent more than last year.

• Math scores grew by 5 percent, history scores did too, and science scores grew by 8 percent.

• Its English scores came within a hair of tying scores in San Francisco for the best among large urban school districts in California.

“I’m not surprised. I’m pleased,” said Nellie Meyer, the deputy superintendent who oversees instruction. “But we still recognize we have work to do — even if we have just one student who is not succeeding.”

Gains on English tests were biggest in eighth and ninth grade, some of the toughest years for students. They were less impressive in second grade and scores remained flat in third grade.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that elementary schools are glum about their scores: Central Elementary, one of the poorest schools in San Diego Unified, where English learners are the norm, saw its English scores surge nearly 9 percent.

“Slow and steady wins the race has been our method,” Principal Cindy Marten said. “We’re closing the teaching and learning gap. I know we’re teaching. Nobody is a slacker. But there’s a difference between teaching a lesson and making sure that students learn it — and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

The steady growth in scores gives the school system some bragging rights as it rejects federal stabs at reform, such as Race to the Top, that stress linking teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Critics have accused the district of sidestepping teacher accountability to keep favor with labor unions. When it chose Bill Kowba as superintendent, some questioned his lack of instructional expertise.

San Diego Unified argues it has a better, alternative model of school reform: a grassroots plan in which each school develops its own reforms. While many of its reforms are still in the making, its budding philosophy is already evident in choosing Kowba, a gentle, collaborative leader who earlier oversaw logistics in the district.

Whatever the school district and its schools are doing, those choices seem to be bearing fruit on state tests. Ron Rode, who oversees assessments, said the fact that state scores continued to grow this year also means that gains last year, when California introduced a different test for some children with disabilities, were not just due to removing lower performing students from the testing pool.

“It’s largely to do with what’s going on in the classroom,” Rode said.

Test scores also grew across San Diego County and the state.

Nearly 60 percent of students in the county reached state goals in English, the highest rate ever. Sweetwater middle and high schools in the South Bay also saw their scores rise, as did elementary schools in Chula Vista. Poway and Grossmont schools also improved on tests, with a few exceptions in specific subjects; Vista scores were more mixed.

The California exams are given annually to second graders through high school juniors and include tests in English, math, history and science. Children can score from “below basic” to “advanced.” Schools are judged by the percentage of their students who are ranked at least “proficient,” the level below advanced. Such tests have become the main way that schools are measured, even impacting housing values; some teachers and parents feel they loom too large.

“I don’t dislike the state test, I dislike what the state test is doing to our kids,” said Bill Freeman, president of the teachers union. “It’s a sad state of affairs when you have an eight- or nine-year old kid identifying themselves as a failure.”

California still has to calculate whether schools and the school district as a whole made the grade under No Child Left Behind, a federal law that sets out penalties for struggling schools. Those verdicts will be based largely on these scores and are expected to be released later this month.

Marten at Central Elementary, for example, thinks that despite their gains, they won’t meet No Child Left Behind goals.

While San Diego Unified has had continued growth on state tests, its performance on national exams, which are given to a smaller sample of children, has been stagnant. School district leaders believe the reason that students fared better on state tests is that the national exams tend to measure deeper skills like critical thinking, something the school district wants to start stressing more.

The downside to the mostly sunny scores is that gaps between African-American and Latino students and their white and Asian classmates have persisted. The same problem has continued at the state level. While State Superintendent Jack O’Connell noted that the gap narrowed slightly for Latino students, it has not budged for black students and children from poor families.

San Diego Unified is still sifting through the scores, which were privately released to districts and the media last week before being publicly announced today, to see which schools did well and why. The results will help the school district gauge whether some of its programs are working, including a pilot program that has provided smaller classes for the youngest students in a sampling of schools.

Correction: While fact checking someone else, we ended up having to fact check ourselves. The original version of this article stated that English scores in San Diego Unified tied those in San Francisco; they fall short by 0.2 percent. We apologize for the error.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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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