San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten has a dream. A dream where one day all students will have equitable access to educational opportunities, no matter the color of their skin. Where they will be judged not by the score of their tests, but by what they can contribute to society.

But for San Diego Unified, as it is for large urban districts nationwide, that dream is a beautiful phantom — one cloaked in noble ideals and opposing socioeconomic forces.

We poked fun at some of the feel-good moments in Marten’s state of the district address. But in fairness, Marten broached a very serious and complicated topic: the racial divide between students who succeed and those who struggle.

Marten, who’s been openly skeptical of using test scores as the key measure of academic progress, said it’s important to use assessments as a “flashlight” to illuminate what’s working and what’s not.

“When we look at what’s happened in San Diego Unified, we have much to celebrate. We can boast about our graduation rate — 87 percent. Highest rate in the state. That’s something to celebrate,” she said in the address.

“And we need to be honest with ourselves and say, ‘but in that number, only 64 percent graduation rate for our English-learners. That’s data we need to pay attention to. Or 54 percent graduation rates for our special education students,” she said.

Alberto Ochoa, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University who’s researched student achievement and school desegregation, said “in its most basic sense, the achievement gap refers to those who are making it and those who are not.”

The problem, he said, is that the achievement gap is a complicated issue surrounded by a lot of “fuzziness” about what it means and how we should address it.

Marten said in the address that starting in December she and top administrators will be holding “data dialogues” to discuss attendance rates, suspension rates and the academic performance of student “subgroups” that are lagging behind.

In the coming weeks, we’ll also explore the possible roots of the disparities in the district, but for now it’s helpful to unpack some of what we’re actually talking about when we talk about the achievement gap.

Test Scores

Based on California Department of Education numbers from 2011-2012, the most recent year with complete data, many of the racial disparities in the district can be summarized like this: White and Asian students have been on the positive side of the statistics, while Hispanic, black and American Indian students fare worse.

While the state has since nixed the California Standards Test and is preparing for a new formal assessment, test scores from that year show us that only 21 percent of Latino students and 17 percent of black students tested proficient or better on their 11th grade math sections.

Compare that with the 76 percent of Chinese students and 47 percent of white students who tested proficient or better in those sections.


At first blush, the graduation rates for students in the San Diego Unified School District are impressive. Overall, about 87 percent of students graduate on time.

Even graduation rates for black and Latino males, two subgroups that traditionally lag behind in achievement data, graduate at 79 percent and 76 percent, respectively.

But if we take a closer look, and consider the number of students who graduate prepared to enter the University of California system, we start to see some separation.

While students across the county and state scored poorly on this measure, only 1 in 5 Latino and American Indian males, respectively, met University of California admission standards when they graduated from San Diego Unified in 2011. The district average was about twice as good.


The flipside to graduation rates, of course, is dropout rates. And for Ochoa, this is where the “fuzziness” that prevents us from tackling the achievement gap is most evident.

After all these years, he said, California still lacks a precise way of tracking which students leave the system.

Here’s some of what we do know: Overall, the district had a 6.2 percent dropout rate in the 2011-2012 school year. The rate for Latino males, who had the highest dropout rate, was over twice that. The rate for black males wasn’t much better, at 8.6 percent.

From Ochoa’s perspective, it’s also important to talk about two different ways students can stop participating in the education system.

“There are the explicit dropouts,” he said, “those who just stop going to school. And the implicit dropouts — those who stay because they have no place else to go. They just survive.”

Ochoa said there are no Band-Aid solutions to keeping kids in schools, or any quick fixes for the achievement gap.

“It might take 50 years to solve (the problems)” he said. “We might never solve them. But if we truly believe in equal access to education, we could provide support and interventions for students from the time they enter kindergarten.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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