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 caaspp.cde.ca.gov. Individual student scores will be mailed to parents in late September, according to the district.