Palo Alto students show improvement in state test, but achievement gap persists

Second year of new standardized exam results released

New results from the state’s standardized Smarter Balanced Assessment, released on Wednesday, show that most Palo Alto Unified School District students exceed standards in English and mathematics, but there continues to be stark differences in achievement between white and Asian student and students of color.

More than 80 percent all Palo Alto students who took the test met or exceeded state standards in both English and mathematics, according to the latest California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) scores. Students in third through eighth grade and 11th-graders took the test this spring.

And while 53 percent of white students and 69 percent of Asian students exceeded standards in English, only 25 percent of Latino students and 22 percent of African-American students did. Twenty-nine percent of both Latino and African-American students met standards in English, according to the results.

The results show a similar gap in mathematics: 60 percent of white students and 81 percent of Asian students tested above standards compared to 24 percent of Latino students and 23 percent of African-American students.

And 27 percent of Latino students met standards in math, compared to 20 percent of African-American students.

The gap persists among English-language learners and economically disadvantaged students (defined as students who are eligible for the free and reduced-priced meal program, foster youth, homeless students, migrant students and students for whom neither parent is a high school graduate). Just over 20 percent of English-language learners exceeded standards in English, though more (36 percent) exceeded the standards in math. About 15 percent of economically disadvantaged students exceeded standards in both English and math.

Superintendent Max McGee told the Weekly Thursday morning that the district's focus will be "doing a deeper dive into the data" on historically underrepresented students. He said the district will also be looking to learn from other school districts across the state where students of color and low-income students performed better.

Carol Hedgspeth, director of research and policy for Innovate Public Schools (a nonprofit that works with communities, including East Palo Alto, to increase access to high-quality public schools), said in an interview that districts must also work to make their results transparent and accessible to parents.

"Transparency about knowing how schools are doing is a big first step in making sure that everyone knows how schools are doing and how to make them better for kids," she said.

Chris Ungar, president of the California School Board Association (CSBA), released a statement Wednesday pointing to the statewide achievement gap illustrated in the new results, which he described as "modest improvement" with an "alarming backdrop." Statewide, 37 percent of Latino students and 31 percent of African-American students tested at or above standards in English compared with 64 percent of white students.

"If we are to close the achievement gap and create a public-school system that offers consistently high levels of education, we need to be focused much more intentionally on questions of equity and questions of adequacy," Ungar said. "It goes beyond test scores -- we must give districts and schools the level of resources, innovation and flexibility required to devise solutions that meet the needs of their specific student populations.

"We must prioritize efforts to strengthen teaching and learning, empower parents with the knowledge to support student learning at home and provide districts with technical assistance that drives continuous improvement for all students, regardless of background," Ungar added.

Palo Alto's results echo those from last year, which yielded the first baseline year of data after a trial run for the new computer-adaptive test in 2014.

Students in fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth grades showed improvement over last year in English and math, with 1 to 5 percent growing to meet the standard this year, according to the school district.

Statewide, the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards increased at every grade level and in every student subgroup this year, according to the California Department of Education.

The new test is aligned with the more rigorous Common Core State Standards and aims to be a more authentic, engaging standardized assessment with real-world application. The test, which replaced the longtime paper-and-pencil STAR exam, is adaptive, meaning the software adjusts the difficulty of questions as a student moves through so that his or her results can better illustrate what skills he or she has mastered or needs to improve on.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, also a Stanford University professor, said in a Department of Education press release that the "positive results are based on a new college and career readiness assessment that is online, and expects students to demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving skills unlike the old, multiple choice tests they replace."

Both years of the Smarter Balanced test, the school district has struggled to get high school juniors to participate at meaningful levels. Palo Alto and Gunn high schools failed to meet the government's required participation rates again this spring, with about half of the junior classes choosing to opt out.

McGee said the district needs to find a better way to encourage and increase participation, whether it's administering the test during a required school day or offering students incentives.

To view Palo Alto's full results, go to Individual student scores will be mailed to parents in late September, according to the district.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


81 people like this
Posted by Carlos
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 25, 2016 at 9:55 am

I think this topic has been discussed to death, but we have to face reality: this achievement gap will NEVER go away because it involves so many factors that PAUSD (or any other school system) has no control over.

As an immigrant myself, and non-native English speaker who has spent enough time in several multi-racial/cultural societies around the world, I can tell you this achievement gap is pretty universal. It's just unrealistic and a waste of resources to think that tiny PAUSD can tackle this issue.

Family, personal, cultural factors all contribute to this gap. Living in a politically-correct world, there's only so much you can openly address before someone gets offended, and these initiatives to close the gap usually go nowhere, until the next set of school administrators take office and make all the usual grand feel-good statements about fixing it. A utopia that just keeps on draining limited school resources.

29 people like this
Posted by sue allen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 25, 2016 at 10:44 am

I've worked in Ravenswood District for about 20 years. The test scores there for Latino and African-American students are about the same as for PAUSD minority students -- especially those who are also low-income. It's PAUSD's dirty little secret that Tinsley Transfer program doesn't really work. Ravenswood had bad schools 20 years ago, but now they are great. Once that word gets out, though, house prices in EPA will go up and it will all be gentrified and there won't be any place for our gardeners and house cleaners and restaurant help to work. And we'll miss the wonderful cultural mix that is EPA.

24 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 25, 2016 at 10:53 am

Carlos is dead on.
The real problem is that public education clings to an antiquated model of teaching where a bright student can learn the same thing much faster using modern technology.
Hence, much of what goes on in the classroom is irrelevant to the student.

Scoring high on a test is not an achievement. The myths of the insulated world of academia must be shattered. Stop lying to high school students. They see right through it anyways and become bitter at an early age.

5 people like this
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 25, 2016 at 11:38 am

Be Positive is a registered user.

As an added data point, I would love to know what percentage of our high school students actually took these tests, I remember huge quantity of them opted out.

14 people like this
Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 25, 2016 at 11:42 am

@sue allen - Looking at the data right now, it doesn't support your assertion that test scores of low income Latino and African-American students are about the same. They do better in PAUSD, especially in elementary school.

For economically disadvantaged Hispanics in 5th grade:

PAUSD Math 35% don't meet standards
PAUSD English 35% don't meet standards

Ravenswood Math 79% don't meet standards
Ravenswood English 59% don't meet standards

One area PAUSD stands out in a bad way is the 8th grade English scores, which are about the same as Ravenswood, though the PAUSD math numbers are much better. Hispanics seems to be doing pretty well in English, improving scores every grade up until 8th. Any thoughts on what's happening between 7th and 8th? Hispanics go from 20% not meeting standards to 44%.

26 people like this
Posted by Carlos is RIGHT
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Carlos is definitely right? THE PROBLEM WILL ALWAYS BE PRESENT. Stupid executives, PLEASE STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP. It's a part of the diversity we all live in, wealthy or not.

16 people like this
Posted by Not the Best
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 25, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Not the Best is a registered user.

Anyone looking at the published scores can see that the communities with the highest socio-economic groups (Los Altos, Hillsborough, Portola Valley, Woodside) had the highest scores. Kids in wealthy families have a wider range of life experiences.

I couldn't find the scores for Los Gatos-Saratoga, but they have beaten PAUSD in SAT and other scores for nearly 30 years.

Many people from this area are discovering San Ramon Unified. Very high test scores, low cost housing. Many PAMF employees who once worked in Palo Alto, Mtn View, San Carlos or Sunnyvale has transferred to Dublin, Pleasanton or Fremont offices in order to buy homes in San Ramon or Danville. PAMF is having a hard time keeping employees here!

18 people like this
Posted by BPS
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 25, 2016 at 4:15 pm

One school did not improve and actually saw a dramatic drop in scores. Barron Park School. At BPS 54% of the student body met or exceeded English standards and 58% met or exceeded math standards. In 2015 those numbers were 64% and 67% respectively.

For low-income Latino students (BPS is where Buena Vista is zoned so there are many), 4% met English standards and 4% met math standards, 0% exceeded them. So 4% of low-income Latino students at BPS are meeting academic standards. At Juana Briones less than a mile away, 55% meet/exceed English and 50% meet/exceed math.

BPS has serious problems the district continues to ignore. The school has been in operation for nearly 20 years, there is no excuse for allowing it to continue to fail in such a spectacular manner. Either figure it out or shut it down.

18 people like this
Posted by Sick of the Orwellian Nonsense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 25, 2016 at 8:59 pm

First of all, Carlos is right- stop spending our precious resources on the achievement gap-- it isn't going away and it drains the school district's energy from more productive pursuits that could help all students. 2nd, I want to point out the Orwellian Newspeak the author uses in the first paragraph comparing white and Asian students with "students of color". Are Asian students not students of color? No they're not because lefty journalists are so used to using nonsense white privilege and racism frames that they don't know what to when some "students of color" are coming out on top. It ruins the story they want to tell. We could just as easily and accurately point out how everyone is struggling compared to Asian-American students but that wouldn't suit the left's racial agenda. I'm white, but I say, congrats to the Asian-American students for doing so well.

3 people like this
Posted by Don't Know Much About Orwell
a resident of another community
on Aug 25, 2016 at 9:12 pm

It's always amusing that those who know the least about George Orwell's philosophy are the one who most invoke his name to cover their prejudices...

4 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 25, 2016 at 9:41 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.


Although many things may help, differences in achievement are most powerfully tackled through a teacher's attention to each individual student. And the smaller the class size, the more attention you can lavish on each learner. More feedback, more individual diagnosis, more coaching--and most of all, more love and encouragement.

Kids tell us flat out that what they want most is to know their teacher cares about them as a person, and once they're convinced of that care--through dozens of little, daily recognitions—they learn like blazes. We need to move heaven and earth to shrink our terribly overcrowded classes to a friendlier size, and now.

Save the 2,008--the community alliance now supported by 521 parents, teachers, therapists, faith leaders, PAMF physicians, Stanford professors, authors, CEOs, realtors, and artists--remains firmly committed to such change.

Marc Vincenti
Campaign Coordinator

6 people like this
Posted by Sick of the Orwellian Nonsense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 25, 2016 at 10:11 pm

@Don'tknowmuchaboutOrwell. It's always amusing to me when people who don't know much about me presume to speak about me and my "prejudices". In any case, I've read Orwell's entire collected essays and all of his novels and major non-fiction works-- many more than once-- But do go on about your superior knowledge of Orwell and continue your fact-free critique of my post. The abuse of language that I cited was exactly the sort of thing that Orwell warned about.

7 people like this
Posted by EPA Resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 25, 2016 at 10:36 pm

Comparing the achievement of Tinsley students to those enrolled in Ravenswood is not an apples to apples comparison with regard to which district is doing the best job teaching these students. Just that fact that the Tinsley students' parents sought out the program introduces a significant variable into the equation. That would apply to any comparison between a private school, transfer program, or charter school to the neighborhood public school. Paly vs Casti, for example.

9 people like this
Posted by Tinsley, cont'd...
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Tinsley, cont'd... is a registered user.

The fact that parents went to the trouble of seeking out Tinsley for their kids implies one very important thing: parent involvement! That is the very difference between many good schools and inferior ones!

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2016 at 2:37 pm

I am not so sure that it shows anything other than there are many parents in EPA who want to get their parents into Palo Alto schools. Yes, there are what, 100 kindergartners each year who get in? Yes, and how many don't? Those parents are equally as involved and deserving praise for their efforts.

Those who win the lottery to get into PA schools are less than 100 families too because priority is given to those who have siblings already in PA schools.

With the so called gentrification of EPA, the fact that there are gated communities in EPA, the fact is that there are many families in EPA who are involved in their children's education. I know of some who are able to afford private schools because their rent (or mortgage) is cheaper.

Not that any of this has much of a difference when it comes to the achievement gap in our schools.

The reasons I would suggest as the biggest factors.

Gene Pool.
Money to pay for extra tutoring.
Value families place on education.
The need for some students to help more at home, babysit, get a job.
The fact that some parents are quite happy with a C grade whereas others demand an A grade.
The fact that some families want their children to get into a top college whereas others are perfectly acceptable with a community college.
The need for some students to leave school straight after the bell whereas others can hang around after school for extra tutoring/teacher/mentor/counselor help.
The fact that some kids are naturally more arty/sporty/history/language orientated whereas others are more math/science orientated.

These factors come into play in many homes in Palo Alto as well as those who are Tinsley students.

I am sure there are other factors too. I don't think that any amount of money is going to get all students to become straight A students or even good B students. Our aim should be that all students reach their full potential, all meet graduation requirements, all are on the track to be valued self-sufficient adults in our society, and that all are well prepared for their future lives as they leave our schools with their high school diplomas.

If PAUSD can do that then I think it has succeeded.

Like this comment
Posted by John94306
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 12, 2016 at 5:53 pm

John94306 is a registered user.

Has anyone received their child's individual scores, yet? If so, which school?

We were told that the PAUSD schools would be sending them out by late August or early September, but we haven't them, yet.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

If you do nothing else, do These Three Things
By Sherry Listgarten | 36 comments | 2,047 views

Lentil Brownies
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 480 views

Finding Balance
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 278 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.