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. Granted, some of these scores were simply "scores." but the numbers, by themselves, raise some concerns.
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). That's one-third that is basic or below.
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. However, I've been told that those taking this test were on a fast-track and this was the culmination of three years of learning.
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 (those out of high school) 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.