Education

Valley schools show improvement on new student tests, but most still lag state

Tracy elementary school student Gabrialla Urquidez, 11, takes a reading test. The Smarter Balanced assessment, the state’s new standardized test, is taken on computers and adapts to students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Tracy elementary school student Gabrialla Urquidez, 11, takes a reading test. The Smarter Balanced assessment, the state’s new standardized test, is taken on computers and adapts to students’ strengths and weaknesses. Vida en el Valle file

Valley school districts have improved state test scores since last year, but still are falling behind California’s average.

The California Department of Education released scores from the Smarter Balanced assessment on Wednesday, providing the first real chance to measure growth on the new test. The first-ever results of the Common Core-aligned test were released last year, and were considered a baseline.

Statewide, students improved in all subjects, with 49 percent of California students proficient in English/language arts and 37 percent proficient in math. In total, that’s up 9 percentage points since 2015.

Fresno County scores also improved, with 42 percent of students proficient in English/language arts and 30 percent proficient in math. That’s also up a total of 9 percentage points since last year’s test.

“The higher test scores show that the dedication, hard work and patience of California’s teachers, parents, school employees and administrators are paying off,” State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in a statement. “Together we are making progress toward upgrading our education system to prepare all students for careers and college in the 21st century.”

The Smarter Balanced assessment is meant to be more rigorous and analytical, aiming to better prepare students for college. The tests are taken on a computer and are adaptive, making questions easier or harder based on a student’s answers.

Districts have complained, though, that some of the selling points of the new test have not held up.

Sanger Unified Superintendent Matthew Navo said schools have not received test scores back as quickly as promised and that the test itself is time consuming. As more states back away from the Common Core standards, Navo worries that California’s switch to the new assessment will prove counterproductive.

“I think the jury’s still out on the assessment to be quite honest. What I see is most districts are showing a steady improvement, and that’s a good thing,” Navo said. “But we’re going to have to get years down the road before it’s determined whether or not this is the best way to measure our kids’ growth.”

Despite the state’s improvements, the disparities between minorities and white students continue. Statewide, 37 percent of Latinos and 31 percent of black students are proficient in English/language arts, compared to 64 percent of white students.

Fresno County’s numbers for those demographics are even lower, with 26 percent of black students proficient in English/language arts and only 15 percent proficient in math. Thirty-five percent of Latino students in the county are proficient in English/language arts, and 23 percent in math. Compare that to the county’s white students: 64 percent are proficient in English/language arts and 52 percent are proficient in math.

Low-income students are also lagging behind: 33 percent of the county’s economically disadvantaged students are proficient in English, compared to nearly 70 percent of students who are not economically disadvantaged.

“The achievement gap is pernicious and persistent and we all need to work together to find solutions that help all groups rise while narrowing the gap,” Torlakson said.

Nearly every district in the Valley showed improvement, but Clovis Unified remains far ahead: 67 percent of students are proficient in English/language arts and 54 percent of students are proficient in math – numbers that also beat the statewide average. That’s an improvement from last year, when 60 percent of students were marked proficient in English/language arts and 50 percent in math.

“We’ve all been working extraordinarily hard, not just to develop a plan of how we take California’s standards and develop the curriculum, but making sure teachers pace themselves appropriately and kids are provided an opportunity to cover the material they need to,” Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said. “There are so many complexities that go into making sure teachers are as effective as they can possibly be. So this is extremely encouraging.”

The difference in scores between Clovis Unified and its neighboring district, Fresno Unified, is significant. At Fresno Unified – the state’s fourth largest school district – 31 percent of students are proficient in English/language arts and 22 percent are proficient in math.

The district is celebrating historic gains, though. For the first time ever in Fresno Unified, every grade level improved in state testing. The district released its scores during a news conference on Monday, ahead of the state’s public release Wednesday.

Fresno Unified’s achievement gap among minority students is prominent. Twenty percent of black students in the district are proficient in English/language arts, compared to 51 percent of white students. In math, 12 percent of black students are proficient, compared to 42 percent of white students. Only 3 percent of the district’s English learners hit proficient marks in English/language arts, and 6 percent in math.

Sanger Unified improved scores by a total of five percentage points. Forty-seven percent of students are proficient in English/language arts and 37 percent are proficient in math.

Scores at Central Unified also increased, with 39 percent of students proficient in English/language arts and 26 percent in math. While the district saw gains in all subjects since last year, its improvement in English/language arts – 8 percentage points – is among the largest in the Valley.

“Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do, but the scores here in Central Unified reflect the same trends seen statewide,” Superintendent Mark Sutton said. “The SBAC scores are only one of many measures we look at when considering student progress, and our teachers and staff are to be commended for the growth attained this past year with a focus to maintain that trend of improvement every school year.”

Forty-eight percent of students in Visalia Unified are proficient in English/language arts, and 32 percent are proficient in math. English scores increased by six points and math scores increased by three.

Madera Unified improved scores by two points in English/language arts, while math scores stayed the same. There, 27 percent of students are proficient in English, and 16 percent are proficient in math.

Selma Unified also saw a slight increase. Student proficiency in English/language arts maintained at 42 percent, while math proficiency increased by one point to 21 percent.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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