The gap between math scores for black and white students in San Diego Unified grew wider on a national exam despite growing attention to math in the school district.

It’s a troubling change that school officials are still trying to understand. While 58 percent of white eighth graders scored proficient or above on the math tests, only 8 percent of black students did. White students had improved continuously over years; black students improved and then dropped this year.

The math gap between poor students and their better-off classmates also grew. The results are especially disappointing because San Diego Unified devoted more attention to math last year, after Superintendent Bill Kowba announced that it would be a major focus for improvement.

It also just launched a new plan to improve African American student achievement, though it hasn’t put any money behind that plan so far. These results underscore why it is paying special attention.

Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer said they are still analyzing the results, but she fears budget cuts are part of the problem. The school district has shrunk its day-to-day spending over the last four years, cutting back on summer school, reducing tutoring and paring back school site budgets.

“We have a safety net for students who need it and we’re slowly cutting it away,” Meyer said.

San Diego students take a smattering of different exams, but what makes this one unique is that it provides a common yardstick to compare San Diego Unified to other urban school systems across the country. State tests differ from state to state; this exam gives a window into how students do nationally.

The national exam is given every other year to a sample group of students in fourth and eighth grade in a smattering of urban school districts. It gauges math and reading skills.

San Diego Unified has improved significantly since it started taking the national tests eight years ago. It tends to perform well on these tests compared to the average urban district, perhaps partly because it has fewer poor children than other districts that take the exam. It also outperforms the California average despite having more poor children and more English learners.

But the recent gains are so slight that they didn’t make a statistical blip. And math scores for eighth graders actually dropped, although the drop was so small it doesn’t count statistically either.

The small improvements are puzzling because in the same years, San Diego Unified has made notable strides on state tests. The same gap showed up last year, when San Diego Unified showed only slight growth on the national exam yet surged on state tests.

Ron Rode, who oversees assessments, believes that the national exam measures more critical thinking and problem-solving than the state tests. The slow growth makes him wonder whether the school district is doing enough to cultivate skills that go beyond the simpler questions on state tests. Beefing up critical thinking is another thing Kowba promised to push; these results suggest there is more left to do.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert

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

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