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San Diego Test Scores Continue To Rise

San Diego city school students have scored higher on state math, English and ...

Credit: Ana Tintocalis, KPBS

Above: San Diego city school students have scored higher on state math, English and science tests for the sixth year in a row. District administrators are hoping to keep scores rising in the coming year despite budget cuts.


San Diego Unified District administrators are hoping to keep scores rising in the coming year despite budget cuts.

— When the results of grade level exams in English, math, science and history were released this week, San Diego Unified students outshined their counterparts across California. San Diego students scored higher on the state English test than students of any other large urban school district and their math scores came in second.

Over the last five years those scores have inched up steadily. This year 59 percent of San Diego student tested at proficient or higher in English, 14 percentage points ahead of the district's students in 2007. Fifty-one percent reached the same level in math, 12 percentage points higher than 2007.

Many factors have contributed to the steady increase, but two stand out, according to Nellie Meyer, district deputy superintendent for academics. The first, she said, is all of the data available about student performance.

“Now we have the ability to track students individually, to look across our district to see where we have programs that have been particularly successful and implement them in other places,” Meyer said.

Three years ago about 30 percent of the students at Mann Middle School in City Heights tested at proficient in both math and English. This year, 55 percent were at least proficient in math and 44 percent reached the same level in English – not bad considering that about two-thirds of Mann’s students are not native English speakers.

Tracking each student has been vital to the school’s gains on state tests, said Principal Esther Omogbehin. One student illustrates what Omogbehin and her staff believe the additional attention can accomplish.

“In sixth grade she was an average student, but we always knew that she was a very smart student and we knew that she could perform a lot better with a little bit more focus," Omogbehin said. "So in seventh grade we focused a little bit more on what she was doing by grade level by content area. And this year she was proficient across the board – as a matter of fact she choiced into one of the premier or more advanced high schools and they accepted her.”

Just having student data isn’t enough, though. The second thing Deputy Superintendent Meyer attributed the test score rise to was the district's focus on training teachers to respond to what that student data tells them by working with their peers.

“Bringing teachers together to meet in learning communities on a regular basis to talk about what students are doing in the classroom, to look at student work and to problem solve together as a team to find solutions for each student,” she said.

That kind of teamwork can be difficult in schools where Sherman Elementary Principal Edward Caballo said the attitude can often be – 'we don’t care how you get it done in your classroom, just get it done.' But, his Sherman Heights school saw its English scores rise 11 percentage points this year and its math scores jumped by more than twice as much. Teamwork is part of what has made that possible.

“On a weekly basis, all of our English teachers at Kinder, first, second, third, fourth and fifth get together and they plan their lessons,” Caballo said.

But he also cited a third vital component behind the steady rise in test scores. There has to be consistency from classroom to classroom.

“We have to be doing the same thing that’s being done next door," he said. "As a grade level we have to come up with the criteria for what we expect of our students and develop the curriculum so it meets those expectations.”

That kind of consistency may be hard to sustain with the hundreds of teacher layoffs that were part of this year’s school district budget.

“It makes me really nervous because the teachers I have had I have had for about three years straight," said Mann Principal Omogbehin, who will have to replace about half of her teaching staff before school starts next month. "So we’ve had a lot of room to grow, tweak, refine and try out different processes.”

This week, district officials and principals like Caballo and Omogbehin are celebrating last year’s successes. But they are also trying to figure out how to repeat them with fewer resources.

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