Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 22, 2007

Diana Diamond: STAR test results show many students have proficiency problems

by Diana Diamond

The news, at first blush, seemed great. The 2007 STAR scores (California Standardized Testing and Reporting Program) were released last week and Palo Alto student scores were among the highest in the state. Santa Clara County students outperformed the state average.

Wow, I thought.

For example, in English/language arts, 54 percent of Santa Clara County students in grades 2 through 11 tested as proficient or advanced, compared to 43 percent statewide. In math, 60 percent of county students in grades 2 through 7 were proficient or advanced, compared to 41 percent across the state.

In 11th-grade English, 81 percent of Gunn High School students were proficient or advanced, with Palo Alto High School trailing by only 2 percentage points.

But then I started looking closely at the STAR scores, and the picture is not a rosy one. In some cases the scores are bleak.

Let's start with Palo Alto schools. Fourth grade scores for English/language arts had 87 percent in the proficient or advanced levels. But there are three other categories — "basic," "below basic" and "far below basic." Some 13 percent of students were at these levels.

Santa Clara County scores were far worse. Fourth-grade scores for English showed 62 percent were proficient or advanced, while 37 percent of the fourth graders were basic or below (the numbers are rounded out). In other words, 37 percent of our fourth graders are not proficient.

In fourth-grade math for the county, 65 percent were proficient and above while 35 percent were basic or below. These are alarming, especially since state results are worse.

I looked at the high school scores in the Palo Alto Unified School District. Several subjects are tested and I picked those grades with the most students taking the test.

In sophomore geometry, 67 percent were proficient or above and 33 percent were basic or below (12 of the 33 percent were in the "below basic" category).

In freshman Algebra II, 100 percent were proficient or above, and none were basic or below. I don't know who those algebra teachers are, but they sure seem to be doing a great job.

In freshman World History, 67 percent were proficient or above, and 32 percent were basic or below. That 32 percent figure in Palo Alto is upsetting. In 11th-grade Earth Science, only 21 percent were proficient (!) while a shocking 79 percent were basic or below. If I were the new superintendent in Palo Alto, I sure would look into these numbers.

The 12th-grade physics scores were somewhat better: 66 percent of students were proficient or above, while 34 percent were basic or below.

I won't detail the county scores here, only to say that nearly all categories were lower than those in Palo Alto. That probably explains our soaring housing prices.

But I do want to dwell on Santa Clara County scores in general — the heart of Silicon Valley. I don't think it's just all right to congratulate ourselves and say we scored better than the state, because our overall "basic or below" numbers are real problems. World History 9th-grade scores at the county level showed 57 percent proficient, and 43 percent basic or below; 11th-grade U.S. history scores had 44 percent proficient or above and a whopping 55 percent below basic — in our own country's history.

Are Silicon Valley Schools failing our kids? I think the answer is yes — perhaps not the best and the brightest, but in some cases the majority.

"If a student is not in AP classes or an honors program, the course quality falls off the cliff," Prof. Michael Kirst of Stanford University, the former president of the state Board of Education, recently told me.

Why are they doing so poorly?

"The top 15 percent of students are competitive with other students across the country. But after that the students are weak, especially in the middle and lower ranges. Our Silicon Valley schools focus on the top and don't do much for the middle or bottom," Kirst said.

Perhaps one indication of our poor-performing students is that more than 70 percent of entering freshmen students at Foothill and DeAnza community colleges need remedial courses in both math and English. And these are our local kids!

I don't want to point fingers and blame the students or the teachers or the parents or the superintendents. It's a problem for all of us.

But it's complex, made even more so by an analysis of the scores by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack McConnell. He said last week that the school testing gap is just not economic, meaning that the low-socio-economic levels score lower than the upper-income kids.

The reverse is true, McConnell's analysis shows. These test results show that poor white students often scored better at math than higher-income African-Americans and Latinos. And, in general, whites and Asians scored higher than African-Americans and Latinos.

So we are left with a possible racial variation in scores, and with "not proficient" scores for thousands of our kids of all colors in the valley, and hundreds in Palo Alto.

It's a problem we must solve. Failing students lead to failing adults.

Diana Diamond is a long-time Palo Alto resident. Her e-mail is Diana@DianaDiamond.com.

Comments

Posted by d. rapaport, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 5, 2007 at 8:51 pm

Professor Michael Kirst. normally a wealth of informative analysis, really hit rock bottom when he roundly generalized that unless you're in an AP or honors class, "the course quality falls off the cliff." (Weekly, August 22).

When I received my doctorate in curriculum and instruction, my teachers taught us to avoid brutal, unfounded generalizations like that, especially when empirical data that refutes the assertion sits right under the researcher's nose, as is the case here at Palo Alto High School.

First of all, I have taught AP History and my comments are not a refutation of AP as much as they are a recognition of what is going on in other classrooms that Professor Kirst seems not to be aware of. Students who take my "regular" U.S. History class as juniors travel in a different direction than those taking AP History. They are able to do things that those students are simply not able to do, such as conduct year-long investigations of primary, original historical documents. Beyond the investigations of primary material, and to ensure that students hear a multiplicity of expert voices, I have also taken advantage of Paly's close proximity to Stanford and invited speakers.

The teacher education program at Stanford, STEP, has asked me to open my classroom for observations, presumably because I'm doing something that is helping students and, perhaps, teachers.

I think what Kirst meant to say is that we have to do more for those students who fail to learn the prerequisite skills necessary for their further success and that at each opportunity, as long as those skills remain unlearned the chances for achievement are significantly diminished.

David Rapaport
Palo Alto High School
Embarcadero Road
Palo Alto


Posted by Not very appreciative of Education degrees, a resident of another community
on Sep 9, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Clearly Micheal Kirst generalized -- that was obvious from the quote and the context. But was he, in general, wrong? I, for one, have observed multiple times over the years exactly what Micheal described. The quality of teaching and particularly of EXPECTATIONS below the highest track classes, be they AP or "honors" depending on the subject, fall like a rock.

Now, it may be that Mr. Rapaport is an exception, and I am sure there must be some other exceptions around. But isn't Mr. Rapaport, despite his Ed. D. degree, doing exactly what he accused Micheal Kirst of doing -- generalizing from his own experience onto the whole district?

The issue is not about exceptions. The issue is about general trends in PAUSD teaching. For those, after 20+ years in PAUSD, multiple kids, and heavy involvement with PAUSD schools, I join Michael Kirst's observations.


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