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Despite year after year of budget cuts, test scores grew again at San Diego Unified for the sixth year in a row, mirroring similar trends across San Diego County. For the biggest school district in the county, the steady growth is a reassuring sign for the grassroots brand of school reform the district is pushing.

Here are some highlights from San Diego Unified’s results:

• Its English scores crept upward and are now the highest among large urban school districts across the state, with almost 59 percent of students meeting state standards. (Results for Long Beach are incomplete due to late testing, which might eventually alter the rankings.)

• More children met the state standards in math, an area that San Diego Unified decided to focus on this year, with 51 percent scoring well compared to 48.6 percent last year. The school district now ranks third among large urban school districts in California in math scores.

• The biggest gains in both English and math were in high school grades, where scores tend to be lower across the state. That trend was especially striking in math.

• Scores in history and science, topics that teachers sometimes fear are neglected in the push to raise English and math scores, also grew slightly this year, with nearly 49 percent meeting state standards in history and 61.2 percent doing so in science.

San Diego Unified has been slowly rolling out a decentralized model of school reform that empowers schools to come up with their own ideas and share them. Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer said that getting teachers together to collaborate and share ideas, as well as a strong data system to track how children are doing, were part of their success. San Diego Unified is using that data to zoom in on schools and classrooms where children are unusually successful and share those ideas with other schools.

It has hit a few hitches: The teachers union called off talks with the school district about the reform plans after pink slips went out to teachers. Budget cuts drained energy and morale this year.

Yet more children made the grade on state tests. “We know what is working and we are continuing to do it,” Meyer said.

She pointed out Sherman Elementary, a Sherman Heights school where children spent part of the day learning in English and part in Spanish, as an example. English scores there rose from 30.5 percent to 41.8 percent, math from 29 percent to 52.3 percent, and science from 37.3 percent to 64.6 percent — stunning gains.

Another example is Mann Middle School, an El Cerrito middle school that made a quantum leap on state tests last year. This year the school saw its English and math scores jump again. Math gains were especially impressive, surging from 40.5 percent to 55.3 percent proficient. The only subject where Mann lost ground was history, where scores dropped slightly.

Principal Esther Omogbehin credited her school gains to having a stable staff who have worked together — something she fears she will lose next year. Disadvantaged schools such as Mann often face more turmoil during layoffs because their teachers tend to be newer; the newest teachers are the first to lose their jobs. Omogbehin estimates half of her teachers are being laid off and replaced.

“It’s very frustrating for me,” Omogbehin said. “Mann has been a low-performing school for a very long time. I’d think that now that Mann has turned, they’d want to sustain it.”

Meyer said the cuts, which have reshuffled teachers and other staff from school to school, might make it harder to sustain these gains next year. “It’s a great concern,” Meyer said.

Another concern is the achievement gap between students of different races, which has only narrowed a small bit. Only 44 percent of Latino students and 46 percent of African American students did well on English tests, compared to 81 percent of white students, 71 percent of Filipino students and 70 percent of Asian students, according to San Diego Unified data.

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Across the county, scores grew in Grossmont, Oceanside, Poway, Sweetwater and Vista schools.

Sweetwater middle and high schools, for instance, saw the percentage of students making the grade on English tests rise from 50.3 percent to 55.8 percent. Countywide, roughly six out of 10 students met state standards in English and a little more than half did so in math.

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The California tests are given to students from second grade to high school juniors and include tests in English, math, history and science. For instance, a fourth grader might have to read a series of short passages about submarines and then answer a question like this:

“The root word in subterranean is terra, which in Latin means “earth” or “ground.” Subterranean must be something

A) made out of dirt or soil.

B) planted in the ground.

C) under the earth or ground.

D) on a beach or riverbank.

Children can score from “far below basic” to “advanced.” Schools are judged by the percentage of students who rank at least “proficient,” the level below advanced.

California still has to calculate overall scores for schools, which are based largely on these results and come out later this month. (High school results also include how students fared on the high school exit exam.) It also has yet to calculate whether schools and school districts meet the rising bar of No Child Left Behind, a federal law that labels and sanctions struggling schools.

The tests loom large in how parents and the public gauge schools. Many teachers have grown frustrated with testing, seeing it as a drain on instruction and a poor gauge of what kids really know.

Kids who come from poor families or do not speak English tend to do much worse on the tests because they come in so far behind their better-off classmates, even if they make huge improvements during the year. That is one big reason why suburban school districts like Poway and Rancho Santa Fe tend to have dramatically higher scores than school districts with higher poverty like San Diego Unified.

The gap is huge: In Rancho Santa Fe schools almost 92 percent of students were proficient or advanced on English tests this year. In National City, the rate was 47.4 percent.

California tries to account for that through “similar schools” rankings, which show how each school has performed compared to other schools with similar challenges, such as students learning English.

Some statisticians argue that a better way to track how schools are doing is to compare how much their students improve on tests each year, not just how high their students score. “Value added” methods go a step further and try to calculate how much a teacher or a reform adds to student scores, an idea that is highly controversial with teachers unions.

Parents and teachers, how do you use these scores? Do you see something interesting in the test results that I missed? A school that stands out for good or not-so-good results? Please help me by checking out the state scores letting me know what you see!

Correction: The original version of this post said the lowest a child can score is “below basic.” It is “far below basic.” I regret the error.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Emily Alpert

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

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