County students improve scores on state STAR testing

During a year of difficult budget cuts, San Luis Obispo County students overall still improved their scores over last year on standardized tests in math and English — and they remain above the statewide average in those subjects.

County students have achieved steady growth on the tests since they were aligned to state standards eight years ago.

“There is steady progress at almost every grade level and in all of the subjects,” county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said. “There is increasing proficiency in math and sciences. That’s a real compliment to our teaching staff.”

Countywide, 60 percent of the 26,072 students who took the California Standards Tests scored “proficient” or “advanced” in English and language arts, and 53 percent reached the same levels in math, according to data released Monday by the state Department of Education.

Despite the rosy outlook, there is some room for improvement. County school officials say they are continuing to address the achievement gap between English-language learners and students of lower socioeconomic status, who tested below the county and state averages.

The state Board of Education has marked “proficient” as the desired achievement goal for all students.

Students are tested in four areas: math, English and language arts, science, and history and social science.

Results are divided into five categories: advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic.

A proficient score is equal to a solid “B” grade, Crocker said.

Statewide results mark the eighth consecutive year that California’s public school performance has improved, state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell said in a statement.

“Even as schools struggle with the ongoing state fiscal crisis, it is impressive that we are seeing sustained growth in proficiency,” he said. “I am pleased that more than half of our students are proficient or advanced in English-language arts and nearly half are proficient or advanced in mathematics.”

Statewide, achievement gaps remain between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers: 69 percent of white students and 75 percent of Asian students scored at the proficient or advanced level in English, while 39 percent of black students and 40 percent of Hispanic students reached that level.

More than 4.7 million students in California participated in the 2010 Standardized Testing and Reporting program, also known as STAR. Students in grades 2 through 11 are tested in math and English; high school students are also tested in science and history.

The tests’ purpose is to show the public how schools are doing, to allow the districts to compare and measure their progress and evaluate student performance, and to meet federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, Crocker said.

He said the focus countywide remains on narrowing the achievement gap for English-language learners and students living in poverty.

English-language learners’ proficiency in English grew over a three-year period, to 22 percent from 15 percent, he said. However, their peers also improved, to 57 percent from 50 percent — creating a 35-point gap between the two groups.

“We know what needs to be done. … It’s a matter of paying for it,” Crocker said. His concern through the budget challenges are these students, who bear the brunt of the cuts and may not have access to remedial help.

“It’s not surprising to me that this gap is not narrowing,” he said.

Some teachers in the Atascadero school district have received specific training to work with English-language learners, who make up less than 10 percent of the district’s student body, said Dan Mosunich, Atascadero’s coordinator of testing and accountability.

Test results are flat or have dropped slightly for the English-language learners, he said, and district administrators and teachers are working to set specific academic achievement goals for those students.

Meanwhile, English and language arts test scores for students in seventh through 11th grades received a boost, Mosunich said.

Paso Robles students also made strong gains in English, especially at the high school level, said Babette DeCou, the district’s director of curriculum.

Last year, 48 percent of high school students scored proficient or higher in that subject; this year, those scores jumped to 61 percent.

Andy Stenson, assistant superintendent of curriculum for Lucia Mar, said he was pleased with the numbers for the county’s largest school district. “We’ve now had two good years in a row,” he said.

He pointed to test results for fifth-grade students, which had large increases in both subject areas over last year. The number of proficient and advanced students increased to 66 percent from 55 percent in English and language arts, and to 73 percent from 56 percent in math.

The district used some federal money last year for “intervention teachers” to provide additional support to small groups of students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, Stenson said.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.