Test scores differ greatly between racial groups

August 16, 2007

By Bruce LiebermanSTAFF WRITER

San Diego County students continue to out-perform their peers throughout California, but a persistent statewide gap in academic achievement among racial groups is also reflected locally, state test scores released yesterday show.
The results point most sharply to a glaring disparity in student performance between blacks and Latinos and their white and Asian counterparts – regardless of income.

“These are just not economic achievement gaps. They are racial achievement gaps and we cannot afford to excuse them,” state Superintendent of Instruction Jack O'Connell said at a media briefing yesterday morning. “They simply must be addressed.”

The disparity in achievement is stark, according to an analysis by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Statewide in English/language arts, only 30 percent of black students and 29 percent of Latino students scored proficient or better. In contrast, 62 percent of white students and 66 percent of Asian students scored proficient or better.

In math, only 26 percent of black students and 31 percent of Latino students statewide scored proficient or better, while 54 percent of white students and 68 percent of Asian students scored proficient or better.

Similar gaps are seen in San Diego County.

“This has never been about race or income,” said Randolph Ward, San Diego County superintendent of schools. “We have a system, a public education system, that does not have the flexibility to be able to put the resources in the places that they're needed.”

The achievement gap persists for several reasons. One is that the most experienced and talented teachers often work at more affluent schools, while younger and less experienced teachers fill slots at poorer schools, which typically enroll minority students.

A student's economic status surely plays a role, but so do low expectations that the student's teachers, principal, counselors, family and friends have for them, educators say.

“A lot of that has to do with ... what we expect from our students and how we translate that into daily behaviors,” Ward said. “It goes all the way to parents and communities.”

In San Diego County, the high percentage of students who are not fluent in English continues to play a big role in the achievement gap, educators say.

In the Chula Vista Elementary School District, where 35 percent of the students are learning English, academic achievement is a struggle for many.

The school district has made great strides over the past five years in boosting performance among its students, but this year, only 47 percent of fifth-graders and 49 percent of sixth-graders scored proficient or better on the English/language arts test.

“I'm proud that we're making progress, but we all realize ... that the achievement gap is not going to be closed overnight,” said Lowell Billings, the district's superintendent.


County's high points

In San Diego County, Ward said bright spots included continued growth in academic performance in English/language arts.

Of the county's 42 public school districts, 80 percent saw improvements in 11th-grade test scores, and 70 percent saw improvements in seventh-and ninth-grade.

“These are traditionally very difficult areas to influence,” in part because there is no uniform curriculum from high school to high school, Ward said.

About 49 percent of county students scored proficient or advanced in English – a two-point gain over last year and a nine-point gain over 2003, the first year that state tests were aligned to state standards, which spell out what students should learn. Math scores showed that about 46 percent of students are proficient or advanced – equal to last year and an eight-point jump from 2003, according to the analysis of state test data by the Union-Tribune.

On the math test, about 42 percent of students statewide scored proficient or advanced – equal to last year and a six-point gain over 2003. About 43 percent of students in California scored proficient or advanced in English – a one-point gain over last year and an eight-point gain over 2003.

Among other highlights around the state and county:

Girls outperformed boys in language arts in both the state and county. They scored only slightly lower than boys in math.

Despite an almost complete change in leadership, San Diego Unified School District's math and English/language arts scores stayed nearly the same between this year and last year. Math performance decreased slightly.

“I am pleased we didn't take a dive simply because we have a lot of new leaderships in a lot of places,” said Geno Flores, deputy superintendent.

Superintendent Carl Cohn, who joined the district in October 2005, has made it a priority to accelerate student performance.

Poway Unified School District saw scores improve overall, although gains were not as broad as in previous years. The district continued to show slight improvements in most subjects at most individual grade levels. Math scores reached all-time highs in fourth-and sixth-grades.

The Escondido Union Elementary School District did not see significant changes overall, but there were bright spots. The percentage of students at Mission Middle School who scored advanced or proficient in Algebra I doubled from 32 percent last year to 64 percent this year.

After failing to meet federal targets for improvement for four years in a row, Mission underwent major changes last fall – including smaller learning communities, longer class periods and increased monitoring and accountability of student progress. Parents and students get feedback on progress every three weeks.


Poverty not major factor

While discussing the achievement gap yesterday, O'Connell said the new state test scores clearly show that lower achievement by black and Latino students cannot be “explained away” as the result of poverty.

“The results show this explanation simply is not true,” O'Connell said.

Statewide, 38 percent of white students and 54 percent of Asian students who are poor scored proficient or better in math. More affluent black and Latino students scored 30 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

In English, 41 percent of white students and 48 percent of Asian students who are poor scored proficient or better. More affluent black and Latino students scored 40 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

San Diego County saw the same trends.

In math, 42 percent of white students and 54 percent of Asian students who are economically disadvantaged performed at proficient or better. Among more affluent black students, 35 percent scored proficient or better. Among more affluent Latinos, the figure was 39 percent.

In English, 46 percent of poor white students and 52 percent of poor Asian students scored proficient or better. Among more affluent black students, 47 percent scored proficient or better. Among more affluent Latinos, the figure was 45 percent.


State analyzes scores

The annual test scores reported yesterday were calculated from a battery of academic tests taken in the spring. The main exams, the California Standards Tests, cover English/language arts, math, science and history/social science.

The tests are key measures of academic performance for about 4.8 million students, including more than 370,000 in San Diego County.

Scores on the exams are used by the California Department of Education to analyze whether schools are meeting state targets for growth in academic achievement. The scores are used separately by the federal government to determine whether public schools are meeting specific academic benchmarks.

Both analyses are scheduled for release at the end of the month.

In the latest round of state exams, students in grades two through seven took grade-level math tests. In grades eight through 11, students took math tests that included General Math, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry and Summative Math. Summative Math is generally for students who are taking higher-level math courses, such as calculus, or for those who have completed all college-preparatory math classes.

Individual student scores, on a scale between 150 and 600, are grouped into five levels of performance: advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic.

The state target for all students is to score proficient or advanced on all of the California Standards Tests. The minimum score required to achieve proficiency on any exam is 350.

Staff writers Blanca Gonzalez and Helen Gao, and systems editor Basim Shamiyeh contributed to this report.