SMMUSD HDQTRS — The much talked about academic achievement gap between African-American and Latino students and their Asian and Caucasian peers is slowly narrowing.

Such is reflected in the recent release of the state’s Standardized Academic Reporting and Testing Program (STAR) which showed that both African-American and Latino students in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District have improved their scores by double figures since 2002.

It’s welcoming news to district officials who have long pledged to close the achievement gap and level the field, achieving proficiency in all subject areas for all students regardless of race or economic status.

African-American students in the district improved their proficiency scores in the English language arts (ELA) by 19 points over the past seven years while going up 16 points in math during that same time period. Latino students saw their proficiency scores improve by 21 points in English language arts and 12 in math. Students categorized as economically disadvantaged increased their scores by 19 points in ELA and 11 in math.

The growth was slightly slower for Asian and Caucasian students, which saw their scores go up by 12 and 10 points, respectively, in English, and seven and 11 in math.

“Clearly as you get higher toward the top of the scale, it becomes more difficult to see those kinds of increases because there is less room to grow,” Maureen Bradford, the director of assessment, research and evaluation, said.

Officials said the improvement in scores can be partly attributed to a heightened awareness of the issue.

“When we first disaggregated data by race and ethnicity and the picture we saw was one that we weren’t happy with, we began to pay attention to those issues,” Bradford said. “We still have so far to go.”

While the gap is narrowing, the ELA and math scores for both Asian and Caucasian students is still double that of African-American and Latino students.

Oscar de la Torre, who serves on the Board of Education and runs the Pico Youth & Family Center, said the root cause of the problem is poverty and a history of disenfranchisement of the minority subgroups.

“In our school district we’re in the process of undoing that legacy by focusing on equity in education as a principle of everything we do,” he said.

While economically disadvantage students also continue to post low marks in the state tests, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said that the achievement gap can’t be explained because of economic factors alone.

He noted that African-American and Latino students who are not economically disadvantaged still scored lower in math than Caucasian students who are economically disadvantaged.

The achievement gap statewide has also been narrowing, though O’Connell said that he has concerns with how the budget will affect progress.

“I hope we can accelerate the narrowing of the achievement gap and that we can accelerate learning for those students in those sub groups growing the fastest,” he said during the press conference. “The absence of summer school, the shorter school year, the larger class sizes, the absence of new textbooks, this is all going to contribute toward a greater challenge for education.”

All schools in the SMMUSD have similarly seen improvements over the past seven years, though some experienced a slight drop in some years before later increasing.

Comparing the 2009 to the 2008 STAR scores, most schools saw slight improvement with only a pair — Juan Cabrillo in Malibu and Grant Elementary School — seeing a decline in some subject areas.

One school that saw a big jump was Webster Elementary in Malibu where science scores went from 68.6 percent proficiency last year to 90.6 this year. A handful of other elementary schools did see their science scores drop slightly, though many had high marks from the beginning.

But Bradford said that year-to-year changes don’t cause much alarm and stressed that emphasis should be placed on overall changes during a larger time span.

She said that certain schools have a small test pool and that one or two students failing could throw off the scores.

There’s also a gap in scores that exists between the schools on the north side and south sides of town with the former posting higher marks.

About 59 percent of students at Will Rogers scored as being proficient or better in ELA, while 86 percent of their peers did at Roosevelt. About 71 percent of students scored proficient in math at Rogers, compared to 86.4 percent at Roosevelt.

When comparing demographics, the schools on the south side do have a higher percentage of minority and economically disadvantaged students. Will Rogers for example has the highest poverty rate in the school district with about 60 percent on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, while Roosevelt Elementary have less than 20 percent, Bradford said.

But that’s not to say that students with low income can’t be successful in schools, she said.

“If you look at the pictures of growth at Rogers, it’s very impressive in the gains they made over the last seven or eight years,” she said. “Beginning in 2002, they had 48 percent proficient in math and now there’s 71 percent.

“Those are very impressive gains.”

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