Is our students learning?

Test scores rise, but ‘achievement gap’ remains wide

This year, No Child Left Behind is increasing pressure on local schools.

This year, No Child Left Behind is increasing pressure on local schools.

When students return to Sacramento City Unified schools next week, it’s likely they won’t recall much about the thousands of little bubbles they marked on the spring Standardized Testing and Reporting exams. Their teachers and administrators don’t have the luxury of forgetting. Whether they support the current state and federal systems regulating California schools or regard them as a nuisance, educators will start the new school year analyzing last year’s data in depth.

The statewide numbers released in mid-August show modest upward growth in California students’ overall English and math performance. In some subjects and grades, however, there is growth in an area everyone has been working to shrink—the “achievement gap” in test scores between poor kids and their more affluent peers, and between Latino and African-American students and their white and Asian counterparts.

It’s been a decade since the state’s Public Schools Accountability Act first began reconstructive surgery on California’s schools. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind act joined state law. Today, things don’t look much prettier.

The numbers attached to schools have huge implications not only for the direction they will take for the year but for their reputations in the community and with parents.

With online data sites like, anyone can view a single aggregated score—the Academic Performance Index—to see how a school stacks up.

But viewing a single score is misleading, said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.

“Snapshot test scores hold no validity in judging the effectiveness of a school,” Fuller told SN&R. Looking at a school’s growth in scores over time paints a slightly more accurate picture, he explained, but even that is problematic.

“Unless we are looking at the growth in learning of a particular set of students followed over time we cannot estimate whether the school organization itself is raising achievement,” states Fuller’s study, to be released in September. The study adds that California’s lack of a student-level data system for tracking individuals over time also means there’s no way to determine whether far-reaching programs to lift up low-achieving students are actually working.

There’s another serious flaw in looking for growth in test scores, asserts Steve Winlock, associate superintendent of elementary education in neighboring Elk Grove Unified School District.

“In the beginning, the test scores don’t show the changes we have made in instruction for the changing demographics,” he said. As a result, scores may not catch up for a few years, by which time a school may have landed in a part of NCLB called Program Improvement.

Once a school enters PI, it must meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals set by the feds, or more aggressive measures may be undertaken every year. Measures include school staff replacement or an extended school day. Schools in this situation can descend into “test prep hell” unintentionally.

A north Sacramento teacher, who asked not to be named because she fears repercussions, described a desperate situation at her high school, which is in year five of Program Improvement. She explained how instruction revolves around preparation for a hierarchy of tests leading up to STAR assessments in the spring.

“Teachers teach to the test,” she said, “which we call ‘covering the material identified in the key standards.’”

She praised her administration for bringing teachers together to discuss how to engage students but lamented the priority given in those meetings to analyzing multiple-choice answers.

Some teachers and parents worry that standardized tests are driving too much school curriculum.

Robert Schaeffer of national testing watchdog organization FairTest says some schools have become myopic in their quest to raise scores. “In low-income areas, the test becomes the curriculum,” he said.

Test scores are rising, according to Fuller’s study, but, surprisingly, not at the rate they were before NCLB. Diminishing returns could be due to several factors, he explained.

“With [former Gov.] Gray Davis,” said Fuller, “there was a lot of enthusiasm. Teachers and principals responded with a commitment to raising achievement.” Then the more penalty-based NCLB came to town, just as money for a rewards-based state system that had been in place dried up.

Another theory is that early gains were the result of more students simply acquiring the very basics.

Analyzing the recent test results, The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit educational organization, found the achievement gap has actually widened in some places since 2003, specifically for disadvantaged eighth- and 11th-graders in both English and math. According to Fuller’s study, gains resulting from smaller class sizes and more credentialed teachers have been made across the board, and have benefited haves at the same time as have-nots.

School leaders don’t blame low test scores on students who are economically disadvantaged.

“You have to work with who shows up,” said county Superintendent of Schools David Gordon. “The lack of advantages cannot be an excuse for not getting the job done.”

Luther Burbank High School principal Ted Appel wasn’t patting himself on the back for his school’s recent exit from Program Improvement, where it spent five years. At Burbank, where around 80 percent of the students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, much effort has been directed at improving English instruction for Hmong newcomers. The school also added intervention classes and an optional extra period, which 700 students attended last year.

“Coming out of PI reflects making a difference, yet we recognize the work we still need to do,” Appel said. “You have to take on the challenge and the reality that as long as we have kids who are not proficient, they are going to be compromised in their future opportunities. That’s where we need to focus regardless of a label.”

Rosa Parks Middle School principal Renee Balestrieri echoed the idea that there is a long road ahead. Despite tailoring instruction for individual students through “academic conferences,” aligning math instruction with the neighboring high school and providing mentors through the group Advocates for African American Student Achievement, the school again failed to meet the goals mandated under NCLB for 2007-08.

“I wish the public knew that we are a school with a purpose,” said Balestrieri. “We are determined to provide the best education possible, and we are aware of the commitment involved.”

NCLB is a labeling game, though, and the definition of success recently changed. For 2007-08, the feds demanded an increased percentage of students be proficient in English and math. As a result, schools like Rosa Parks, which struggled even to meet previous requirements, faced the disheartening news in August that their progress wasn’t enough.

“The concept of Program Improvement is not bad,” said Winlock. “Benchmarks are the issue because they’re not realistic. We haven’t established reasonable rates to move … I worry about people giving up. Ten percent is huge.”

The president of the Association of California School Administrators local chapter, Jeff Kilty, also opposes punishing schools based on these goals. “I would add flexibility [to NCLB] for education agencies that are doing a terrific job of growing but are just not making the numbers.”

Only half of the country supports NCLB in its current form, according to a Harvard University poll released in August. It’s not surprising then that presidential candidates are responding with their own plans for change. Sen. Barack Obama promises to remove the punitive aspects of the law and to “improve the assessments used to track student progress.” His opponent, Sen. John McCain, calls for more school choice and giving parents more power to “move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools.”

Here in the capital, a recent report of the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, on which Superintendent Gordon serves, makes a multitude of recommendations, including performance-based compensation for teachers and principals and greater autonomy for school districts. The report also recommends a zero-tolerance policy for schools that continue to fail.

Schaeffer of FairTest emphasized the need for policy-makers to rethink treatment for ailing schools. “Politicians have failed to do a complete diagnosis of the causes of low achievement. They offer a snake-oil remedy instead of treating the root causes,” he said.