Many Valley schools performed worse on state assessments last school year than the year before, halting a nearly decade-long trend of rising standardized test scores.
Fresno, Clovis and Madera unified school districts saw scores slip in at least one of two primary academic tests math and English according to state data released Thursday.
Overall, scores from the 2013 Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, dropped across the state by a fraction of a percentage point in both categories.
State officials blamed the decline on years of sustained budget cuts by lawmakers and the statewide transition to the Common Core State Standards. Some administrators agreed, but they say they're putting less stock in the numbers as the state moves to a new testing model under Common Core.
"We're disappointed in a slight drop," said Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified superintendent. But because other district and state scores dropped, and other states have seen similar declines in standardized test scores, "I'm less worried about it," he said.
In Fresno Unified, slightly less than 42% of students tested at or above grade level in English, a drop from the prior year of less than 1 percentage point. About 41% of students scored at or above grade level in math, down from 42% last year. That's compared to the state's math average of about 51% a .3 percentage point drop from last year and an English average of about 56% a .8 percentage point dip.
The statewide scores continued to reflect an achievement gap between African-American, Latino, low-income and English learners, compared with their peers. The newly adopted state budget will allocate more money to districts with disadvantaged students, which is expected to help them overcome the achievement gap by providing extra programs and services.
Hanson said he plans to "double down" on training teachers in areas where the district did worst. Valerie Davis, president of the district's school board, said that despite the shift, she's "confident that we are addressing those areas even before the results were received."
Not everyone is so sure: Trustee Michelle Asadoorian said she's worried Fresno Unified will never catch up to the state average.
"Every year we chase the state average and in the seven years I've been on the board we've just seen incremental growth," she said. "Incremental growth is not enough."
It's the first time in at least eight years that scores have dropped in Clovis Unified, said Carlo Prandini, the district's associate superintendent. Prandini said this year's test didn't include scores for the writing portion which he said Clovis students usually excel on and which could explain the decline.
About 70% of Clovis students scored at or above grade level in math, a 1 percentage point increase, while English scores fell from 75% to 74%.
"The fact that writing wasn't counted, that's pretty significant," Prandini said.
In Madera Unified, English proficiency scores tumbled 3 percentage points, from 43% to 40%, while math scores declined a half percentage point, from 39% to 38.5%.
A school's scores determine whether it conforms with the standards spelled out in No Child Left Behind, the federal schools improvement law.
But this year is likely the last time many schools throughout the state will use the test. Several California schools have begun piloting the Smarter Balanced Assessment, a test used to measure proficiency in the new Common Core standards, and some including Fresno Unified plan to completely switch to that test next spring.
Even with sliced budgets and a pending change in standardized testing, some schools maintained or lifted their scores this year.
At Central Unified, about 49% of students performed at or above grade level in both math and English, about the same as last year.
Sanger Unified students improved in both math and English an anomaly in the Valley. About 60% of students in that district performed at or above grade level in math, a 3 percentage point jump, while English proficiency rose from 59% to 60%.
"We kept our classroom sizes down. We kept the distraction of budget cuts away from the classroom, and that was tough, but that seemed to help us," said Matthew Navo, Sanger Unified superintendent.
The Contra Costa Times contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.