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Technology has made it much easier to understand how different parts of a whole fit together in the grand scheme of things. And that’s exactly what the National Assessment Governing Board tried to do in its national report card for 21 large, urban school districts, including San Diego.
Here’s the key takeaway for San Diego: Fourth- and eighth-grade students are performing better in reading and math than their peers in the average large city. But not by much. And most of San Diego’s urban district students are netting below-proficient test scores.
The district welcomed the report card as great news. It published a press release trumpeting its spot near the top of the rankings and said report card shows San Diego Unified is keeping pace with the nation. But that interpretation just doesn’t jibe with the data. Being near the top is less impressive when the rest of the pack is also falling short of the standards.
And here’s the more concerning thing: Eighth grade students’ reading and math scores are below the large-city average, suggesting that something is going wrong along the road to high school. It’s just not clear what. And the data doesn’t tell us what’s keeping the achievement gap open.
It does, however, shed light on the achievement gap among different subgroups of students – by race and income level, for example. And that’s what San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten has said she will focus on when it comes to achievement. She wants to use data like what’s in the report card as a “flashlight to show the way” toward making sure there’s a quality school in every neighborhood.
In its most basic sense, the achievement gap shows us who is succeeding and who isn’t. As Mario Koran recently explained:
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.
In an online seminar that unpacked the national data, Executive Director Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools argued that two-year test score comparisons may skew conclusions. A 10-year comparison of test scores gives us a bigger and more reliable pool of data to interpret, he said.
“That 10-year period give us a long enough trendline to know whether public schools are making progress,” Casserly said. “In all, our gains have been significantly larger than the nation in the last decade.”
Generally, the larger the pool of the data you have and the longer you’ve been collecting it, the more accurate your conclusions will be. That’s just basic statistics.
But there hasn’t been much change in San Diego over the last couple of years, and most local students still aren’t proficient in reading and math. The achievement gap between the average urban district and specific ones may be closing. But it still exists in San Diego.
Marten has criticized test scores for not reflecting the “soft skills” that schools also provide, which, she says, will make students actively literate and engaged members of society.
Some test scores are on hiatus while California roles out the new Common Core standards, which emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization. But this may muddy the water when it comes to understanding the data.
Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, said during the online seminar that the board was waiting until test definitions and measurements are developed for Common Core before making comparisons to previous data. It’s a different “assessment framework,” and they’ll have to account for that going forward, she said.