State test results show persistent achievement gaps
San Francisco Chronicle
August 16, 2007>Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer 


A frustrating and persistent achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian American peers shows no sign of abating in the latest state test results for nearly 5 million students across California.

Overall, students of all backgrounds made minimal progress in English during the past year and no progress in math.

State schools chief Jack O'Connell said he was not surprised by the leveling off of improvement across the state, noting similar trends across the country that have followed growth spurts, as California had.

But it was the difference in achievement among ethnic groups that O'Connell said was most evident - and most disturbing - about the new test results.

"We cannot afford to accept this, morally, economically or socially," O'Connell said.

The results of the 2007 California Standards Test - taken by 4.8 million students in grades 2 through 11 last spring - are not scores but are percentages of students in every school and district who scored at or above grade level in each subject. Results were released Wednesday.

In English, 43 percent of students scored at grade level, up from 42 percent in 2006.

In math, 41 percent of students scored at grade level in both 2006 and 2007.

In the Bay Area, students are improving more in English than in math.

Among more than 170 Bay Area districts, 95 increased the percentage of students proficient in English since last year, compared with 55 improving that rate in math.

Statewide, more black and Latino students have scored at grade level in the core subjects in recent years, but they still lag far behind other ethnic groups.

O'Connell said the skill gap can't be explained by differences in family income. He noted that black and Latino students who weren't enrolled in the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program - the poverty indicator used by the state Department of Education - scored only about as well as white students who are enrolled in the lunch program.

Slightly more than 40 percent of middle-income black and Latino students scored at grade level in English- about the same as low-income white students. About 67 percent of middle-income white students did as well.

In math, 30 percent of middle-income black students scored at grade level, as did 36 percent of middle-income Latinos. About 38 percent of low-income white students scored at grade level.

The disparity raises serious questions about who might be failing these students of color and what can be done about it.

"For decades, our education system has provided kids of color less of everything that research says makes a difference in public education - even to middle-income kids of color," said Russlynn Ali, executive director of Education Trust West, an Oakland think tank. "Whose fault is that? Everyone who makes up the system."

O'Connell said he will invite experts to Sacramento on Nov. 13 and 14 to figure out what to do about the problem.

"We'll focus on that like a heat-seeking missile," he said.

On the brighter side, progress over the past five years has been steady among all groups.

In English, the percent of students scoring at grade level is eight points higher than it was in 2003, from 35 to 43 percent. That translates to about 442,000 additional students doing well.

The percent of low-income students scoring at grade level in English improved even faster since 2003, rising by nine points, from 20 to 29 percent.

In math, the percent of students scoring at grade level rose six points since 2003- from 35 to 41 percent. In higher-level math, skills declined by two points each in geometry and algebra 2, remaining under 30 percent.

But that slide could be explained by an increase in the number of students enrolled in the tougher math courses, O'Connell said. Geometry enrollment rose by 99,560 students, and algebra 2 added 68,209 more students to its rolls last year.

California's top-scoring school in English was a tiny high school with just 34 students in Nevada County called Ghidotti High. Every one of them scored at grade level or above.

The state's best in elementary math was Faria Elementary in the Cupertino Union District, Santa Clara County, a perennial winner. All but a couple of students scored at grade level.

In the Bay Area, the top-scoring district in English was Hillsborough City Elementary in San Mateo County, which came in second in math. The Bay Area's first-place district in math was Lakeside Joint School District in Santa Clara County, which placed 20th in English.

No student in either district was enrolled in the federal lunch program, and most had parents who were college graduates.

But the results also revealed some Bay Area schools doing unexpectedly well, given their students' challenges.

At San Francisco's Bret Harte Elementary - where 71 percent of students were in the federal lunch program and nearly two-thirds of students were black or Latino - more than half of the pupils were proficient in English.

They had also progressed by a stellar 12 points, so 53 percent of students were at grade level in English, up from 41 percent last year.Bret Harte fared less well in math, with 48 percent proficient - about the same as last year.

Vidrale Antoinette Franklin, who became principal four years ago after years as a Bret Harte teacher, credits not only her school's attention to academic skills - kids take diagnostic tests every six weeks - but her staff's attention to individual children.

"Expectations are high for students," Franklin said. "Teachers have to believe that students can learn."

For example, it would be easy to impose a zero-tolerance policy for acting up in class. But Bret Harte teachers have learned that it's more effective to figure out what's bothering children than to punish them.

"Most of the time, we give them something to eat, and they're back in class," Franklin said.

In Oakland, Think College Now Elementary also belied state trends and strongly raised its scores, though three-quarters of students are Latino and poor.

In math, 60 percent of students scored at grade level, up from 52 percent last year. And 49 percent did as well in English, up from 31 percent.

Principal David Silver credited his school's unique culture with raising students' scores.

Consider "Data Night." While other urban schools have trouble drawing parents to school even with a grand pasta feed, Silver said all he has to do is to promise a rousing evening looking at test scores.

"There's a philosophy," he said. "We set a big goal, set high expectations, and work hard to get the strongest teachers, strongest support staff. And we do whatever we can to support them."

Silver said he isn't allowed to choose his own teachers. But he said he recruits heavily and then works with the district to let him to hire the staff his team wants.

In addition, Silver said the school does not teach students the curriculum favored by the Oakland district, which has not performed as well as Think College Now, overall. Instead, the school teaches the subjects endorsed by the state - which are tested on the California Standards Test.

"Oakland is going more in that direction, too," he said.

Given that Think College Now is apparently doing a good job closing the achievement gap, would Silver consider sharing his secrets with the experts who will attend state Superintendent O'Connell's achievement gap summit in November?

"Sure," Silver said. "If I'm invited."

E-mail Nanette Asimov at

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle