August 8, 2013

Modesto-area school STAR testing scores drop slightly

A first look Thursday at scores from state tests this spring shows slightly lower numbers overall, but also a strong turnaround by a Modesto underdog.

A first look Thursday at scores from state tests this spring shows slightly lower numbers overall, but also a strong turnaround by a Modesto underdog.

The skid was predicted as schools shift to common core standards before state tests make the change. In essence, what's on the test is increasingly not what children are being taught.

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Parents should be getting their children's scores in the mail soon, superintendents said. The annual state Standardized Testing and Reporting assessments, known as STAR, are given starting in second grade in math and English, with periodic checks of science and history. (See test results here).

"Overall, we are disappointed with the results," said Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able.

English scores rose slightly across the district, but the tests show students continue to struggle in math, especially algebra. Able said she believes the switch to the common core math progression will help.

Robertson Road Elementary, which landed on the list of lowest-performing schools in the state three years ago, posted the strongest improvements in the district.

The southwest Modesto school posted scores showing students moving in double digits from failing scores to average, and from nearly there to passing. Because many students started very far behind last year, those steps up the ladder are what Principal Christina Dimas was looking for.

"We can't take far below basic and shoot them to advanced, but we are moving them up. We are seeing those shifts," she said.

Because of its poor early showing, the school qualified for a three-year, $3.9 million grant, now in its second year. The money pays for an extra hour in every school day, a school physical education teacher, a hands-on science teacher, a math coach, time for teachers to collaborate, more help for struggling students and lots of teacher training, Dimas said.

Extra help for struggling students also paid off in Salida Middle School scores this year.

"We have virtually eliminated any sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grade student scoring in the (lowest) bands in all subject areas," Salida Union Superintendent Twila Tosh said.

Superintendents said the change to common core will help all students do better in the long run, but it will be a bumpy ride until the tests line up. "The (testing) data is useful in determining the effectiveness of last year's educational program," said Waterford Unified Superintendent Don Davis. With the switch to new standards, he said, "the data is less valuable in helping us to plan."

Valley Home students focused on math and fared better in 2013 tests, said Superintendent Rolanda Desrosiers-Lewis. Her students will be switching to the new standards in math first.

Empire schoolchildren will, too, said Superintendent Dave Garcia, adding the district intends to raise the bar for all subjects. "Our area of focus for the 2013-2014 school year is to improve instruction universally," he said.

Oakdale schools started implementing the English portion of common core, said Superintendent Marc Malone. Though Oakdale High did well, the district as a whole dipped a bit, he said.

Patterson doubled the number of seventh-graders who take the algebra test and saw higher scores in geometry and biology, said Superintendent Philip Alfano.

In Turlock, algebra scores made strides as well, Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said. The district is bringing more high-interest nonfiction reading to the curriculum as it turns toward common core, he said. With the new standards, "learning becomes more conceptual versus procedural and students engage in collaborative problem-solving and application," he said.

Many districts are just now wading into common core, but Merced Union High School District began the switch two years ago, one of the first high school districts to do so, said Superintendent Scott Scambray. "We really have two choices: We can work on the future, which is what's best for kids, or we can beat a dead horse," he said.

Not close to No Child goal

Even a cursory look at the numbers shows the need for change, with the vast majority of schools nowhere close to what No Child Left Behind promised for all in 2014-15: 100 percent of students performing at grade level.

Stanislaus County had 11 schools above 75 percent proficient in math. Lakewood Elementary has 92 percent of its students clearing the bar. Also high were Knights Ferry Elementary, Aspire University Charter, Park View in Ripon and Walnut Education Center in Turlock.

Countywide, fewer than half of students meet math standards at about 40 percent of schools.

Even though 91 percent of Hart-Ransom students passed the reading and writing tests, Superintendent Ream Lochry said the system is broken. "Current NCLB targets are arbitrary and unrealistic," he said.

Gauging student improvement instead of trying to make every child hit the same score would be a start, educators said. Online, interactive tests coming in spring 2014 will be a major change, said Debi Bukko, a common core trainer for Sylvan Union district.

"We need parents to be aware the testing system is going to be different from the testing system they experienced (growing up)," she said.

New technology also caused some security concerns at a handful of schools this year, including Sylvan's Somerset Middle School and Enochs, Downey, Patterson and Turlock high schools. Each school reported a security breach involving social media exposure of test material.

Sylvan Superintendent Debra Hendricks said that in the Somerset case, a student posted a photo of the front cover of the testing booklet on the social media site VINE.

"Once this was reported to the school, the student removed the photo and we notified the California Department of Education's STAR Program Unit to report the incident," Hendricks said. "We have not heard from CDE as to whether this will have an effect on the middle school's test results or not."

Above 50 percent

Statewide, 51 percent of students hit the bar in math this year, 56 percent in reading, down slightly from last year, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said Thursday.

"As you would expect for a school system in transition, results varied from grade to grade, subject to subject and school to school, but the big picture is one of remarkable resilience despite the challenges," Torlakson said. However, he added, "The long-standing achievement gap among student groups remains a matter of great concern and considerable challenge."

In Stanislaus County, where about a quarter of students are learning English, several districts said helping those children must be more of a focus.

Hughson Unified Superintendent Brian Beck said helping English learners will be a top priority this year, especially with the switch to common core.

Special education students will be a focus for the Newman-Crows Landing district this year, said Superintendent Ed Felt. The district saw higher math scores and overall far fewer students with very low scores this year, he said.

A study of Stanislaus County scores by testing expert Mary Stires with the county office of education found black students' scores fell further than other ethnic groups, but the hardest hit were math scores of poor students, which fell 5.6 percent from last year.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter @NanAustin and at

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