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San Diego Schools Scores Go Up On National Exams Yet Racial Gap Remains

Aired 12/18/13 on KPBS News.

San Diego results on national tests of math and reading show higher scores for all students, but gaps between racial and socioeconomic groups remain.

— San Diego city students are generally out performing their peers on national math and reading tests, known as the National Assessments of Educational Progress, or NAEP, according to results released Wednesday. But a wide achievement gap in the district persists.

Every two years, results on national tests of fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading come out for 21 large, urban school districts. Since 2003, San Diego scores on most of the tests have increased more than the national average and other large, urban district scores.

San Diego Math Scores

District fourth-grade math scores rose 15 points on a 500-point scale during that period. That's compared to a seven-point rise in the average national score and an 11-point rise in large, urban school districts. Eighth-grade math scores in the district rose 13 points, compared to seven points nationally and 14 points for urban districts generally.

San Diego Reading Scores

The average district score on the fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests each rose 10 points, compared to a four-point rise nationally in fourth-grade scores and a five-point rise in the eighth-grade scores. In large, urban districts, fourth-grade reading scores went up eight points and eighth-grade scores went up 9 points on average.

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten touted those gains in a statement Wednesday.

"Our culture of innovation, excellence, and creativity has allowed teachers to concentrate on student achievement, giving San Diego Unified a consistent spot near the top," said Marten. "As we transition to the new Common Core State Standards, our focus is on increasing rigor, pacing, and engagement as we challenge ourselves to come up with new ways to address the persistent achievement gap and achievement in grade 8 math."

The Achievement Gap

The gap between white students’ performance and that of black and Hispanic students has not narrowed in San Diego city schools. Neither has the gap between low-income and more affluent students.

On national math exams, 43 percent of fourth-graders and 31 percent of eighth-graders got scores at or above the federal proficiency target. In reading, 33 percent of fourth-graders got at least a proficient score and 29 percent of eighth-graders did as well.

On math tests, 24 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and 15 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders reached proficiency, while 21 percent of black fourth-graders and 14 percent of black eighth-graders did. On reading tests, 20 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and 15 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders reached proficiency, while 18 percent of black fourth-graders and 13 percent of black eighth-graders did.

Black and Hispanic fourth-graders each trailed their white classmates by 32 points on the math test. On the reading test, Hispanic fourth-graders' scores were 36 points lower than white students, while black students' were 35 points lower. The gaps were wider for eighth-graders, with Hispanic students scoring 40 points lower than whites in math and 34 points lower on reading tests. Black eighth-graders trailed white classmates by 40 point in math and 37 points in reading. Students eligible for free and reduced price lunch scored 29 to 36 points lower on each exams compared to their more affluent peers.

Ron Rode, San Diego Unified School District's executive director for accountability, said that closing those gaps is the goal of many reforms being put in place by the district’s new superintendent Cindy Marten.

“Looking at teaching and learning, looking at the leadership at the schools and also the professional development that is targeting how we provide rigorous, relevant instruction for all students, particularly those that are lower performing," he said.

Rigorous Assessment

Rode said NAEP exams are thought to be more rigorous than California's standardized tests, which could account for the district's modest progress in closing the achievement gap on state tests while the gap persists in the national exams.

The test score gaps between San Diego’s white students and their black and Hispanic peers are larger than those at the state and national levels as well as at large, urban districts as a whole.

Rode said because the national tests are more rigorous, they give the district a sense of where efforts should be focused to ensure students are prepared for new state standardized exams that all California school districts will pilot this year. They are meant to be in line with new state math and English standards, known as the Common Core. The new standards focus on skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and requiring students to make arguments and inferences based on evidence from texts and classroom activities.

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