San Diego Unified did better than the average for large urban school districts on a national science test, ranking fourth out of 17 big city districts in the percentage of students scoring proficient or above.

That may not be surprising, since San Diego Unified also has fewer students poor enough to get free or reduced price lunches than the average big city district, something that tends to make San Diego Unified look good when compared to other urban school systems.

But San Diego Unified also had some of the biggest achievement gaps between its white students and their Hispanic and black classmates, as well as economically disadvantaged students and better off ones, according to an analysis done by the school district itself. Boys also outperform girls.

And even with some of the highest scores among urban districts, San Diego has a way to go, with only 29 percent of fourth graders and 20 percent of eighth graders scoring proficient or advanced on the exam.

The national test was given to a sample group of fourth and eighth graders in 2009, part of a trial program by the National Assessment of Educational Progress to give large, urban school districts a common yardstick. Similar tests are already used more regularly to compare states.

The last time San Diego Unified students took the test was in 2005, when just 18 percent of students scored proficient or higher. The test has changed since then, which means school districts can’t compare the results. But there are other signs of improvement elsewhere: These national tests were given the same year that San Diego Unified saw a big improvement on state science tests.

“It affirms the results we’re seeing on the state tests,” said Ron Rode, executive director of the accountability office in San Diego Unified. “We believe it indicates that our elementary science program is very strong.”

Rode said that testing officials also said it was unusual for an urban district to outperform the state. San Diego was slightly above the California average in fourth grade science and roughly on par with the state in eighth grade. Keep in mind, though, that California lagged near the bottom nationwide on these same science tests, which means San Diego was still behind national scores in both fourth and eighth grade.

You can check out the full results online; San Diego Unified is highlighted on pages 72 and 73. Spot something interesting in the results? Please share your observations here on the blog.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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