Students at Roosevelt Elementary School get schooled. Test scores across the district are on the rise. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta.)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District students beat state and county scores in a battery of statewide standardized tests last school year, as well as their own past performance.
The Standardized Testing and Reporting exam, or STAR, is a statewide test in which 4.7 million California students participated.
State and county scores improved in all of five categories this year, with 57 percent scoring proficient in English-language arts and another 51 percent reaching proficiency in mathematics.
Those percentages include students in grades 2 through 11 who took English exams and the students in grades 2 through 7 who took math exams, as well as those who took “end of course” exams, which can include algebra and geometry as well as other forms of math.
That’s the highest percentage since 2003 when the tests were aligned with content standards that lay out what students in each grade level are expected to know.
“In less than a decade, California has gone from having only one student in three score proficient to better than one student in two,” State  Superintendent Tom Torlakson said. “That’s nearly 900,000 more students reaching proficiency now than in 2003 — a remarkable achievement that represents real, sustained improvements in learning.”
Local students left state numbers in the dust, however, with 74.5 percent of test-takers reaching proficiency in English-language arts and 62.4 percent hitting that mark in mathematics.
Elementary and middle school performance in mathematics was flat from 2011, with 81 percent of elementary students scoring proficient or advanced and 65 percent of middle school students hitting that mark.
SMMUSD students often chalk up increases of 1 and 2 percent in most subject areas per year, which Maureen Bradford, director of assessment, research and evaluation for the SMMUSD, dubbed “sustainable” growth.
Year-to-year gains are especially impressive given the major cuts to funding, said SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon.
“These relatively small gains over the prior year are part of a longitudinal pattern of steady and continuous improvement. Our multi-year, upward trend reflects the high caliber of our classroom teachers and their ongoing efforts to improve instructional practice,” she said.
What really got the local education community talking this year, however, was the 5 percent gains seen in high school mathematics scores, traditionally an area of weakness in the district.
High school math performance can be difficult to improve because it requires that students form a solid basis in abstract math concepts when they are younger, Bradford said.
By the time they’re looking at calculus or statistics, it’s no longer enough to just memorize formulas — they have to understand the mechanics of why those formulas work.
That can be difficult to achieve at lower grade levels because those teachers do not have to specialize their instruction, Bradford said.
“Most elementary teachers are not math specialists, they’re generalists,” Bradford said. “The challenge there is helping elementary teachers understand underlying math concepts that will carry the students forward.”
On the other hand, math scores dip dramatically by the time students get to high school.
Only 40 percent of high schoolers in SMMUSD reach the “proficient” level on their math exams. While that’s a huge step above the state scores, in which only 29 percent of high schoolers earn proficiency-level scores, it shows that something is not quite right.
In part, it has to do with high school math teachers who, unlike their elementary colleagues, are specialists, but need help engaging their students in math lessons, Bradford says.
Focusing on both kinds of teachers paid off with a 5 percent bump in high school  math scores.
“We do want to celebrate our success, but of course we’re not satisfied,” she said.
Fourth and seventh graders in SMMUSD also saw major improvements in their writing scores, with 90 percent of those students nabbing the two highest scores possible on the essay portion of the exam.
“People must be shaking their heads when they look at Santa Monica-Malibu,” Bradford said.
And, while a significant achievement gap still exists between white and Asian students and their minority counterparts, this year’s scores continued to show a slow narrowing of the gulf.
Over the past 10 years, African-American students gained 20 percentage points in their English-language arts scores compared to 15 points gained by white students. Latino students did even better, with a 26-point gain.
Latino students maintained their gains in math, showing a 20-point improvement over that time period compared to 13 points for white students.
African-American students also improved, but slightly behind the white students with a 12-point gain.
The California Department of Education will take the test results and match them with other academic information to create two important measures of academic progress, the Academic Performance Index and the Adequate Yearly Progress reports.
Both are used to determine how well schools are educating their students, and factor into the federal No Child Left Behind law.

ashley@smdp.com