Students participate in Milus Blagojevic's math class at Santa Monica High School on Tuesday afternoon. Students across the district showed gains on standardized tests. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Test scores just keep going up.

The California Department of Education on Tuesday released results of the 2009 Academic Performance Index (API), which rates achievement based on two state assessments, showing that the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District improved its scores by 5 points.

The API is based on results of the California High School Exit Examination and the Standardized Testing and Reporting Program, rating schools on a scale of 200 to 1,000 with the target set at 800, which all in the SMMUSD with the exception of Olympic High School — 772 — reached.

The improvement brings the district to its all time high of 835.

“Our district mission is to increase achievement for all students while simultaneously closing the achievement gap,” Superintendent Tim Cuneo said.

Students in minority subgroups also saw their scores improve, the biggest gains belong to African-Americans whose points increased by 28. Latino and economically disadvantaged students improved their API by six points each. The scores for the three subgroups however remain below 800.

Students with disabilities also improved their API by 16 points, reaching a score of 622.

“The 2009 API report speaks to the professionalism and commitment of our classroom teachers, school administrators, support staff and district staff,” Cuneo said. “Based on these results, we will be moving forward with a strategic plan to focus on specific programs and projects that will yield continued gains for all students, and effectively close the pernicious achievement gaps that remain.”

Most schools also saw improvement this year, including McKinley Elementary and Point Dume Marine Science School in Malibu, which saw gains of 34 and 35 points, respectively, bringing the latter’s score to 944 — the highest in the district.

The biggest drop occurred at Juan Cabrillo Elementary, which saw its scores go down by 37 points to 824. The school had improved its score just a year prior by 21 points.

Barry Yates, the principal at Juan Cabrillo, said that the school has hired a former teacher to work as a reading specialist in grades three to five to help support students’ literacy development. The school will also introduce a before-school tutorial program.

“Teachers and students have returned to school excited and enthusiastic,” he said. “We’re off to a great start and we expect great results.”

Aiming to continue the progress, SMMUSD officials have looked at aligning the district curriculum with state standards, making sure it’s rigorous so that students are well prepared for exams, Maureen Bradford, the director of assessment, research and evaluation, said.

The district last year introduced a new math curriculum in elementary through high school, a move that is reflected in the scores, Bradford said. A new English language arts program has also been adopted for this year and a fresh curriculum for the elementary and high schools is expected in 2010-11.

“Our teachers are really improving their instructional delivery, making sure that they have different ways of reaching different kinds of learners,” Bradford said.

The district also met nearly all of its Adequate Yearly Progress targets under the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools that receive Title 1 funding must meet all criteria or face sanctions under the federal Program Improvement. All Title 1 schools in the district met the AYP targets in 2009, Bradford said.

API scores statewide also saw improvement, jumping by 14 points to 755. Minority subgroups also saw similar gains.

“It’s modest improvement, incremental improvement, but we’re no longer seeing a widening of the achievement gap which … we had seen for 30 years,” state Superintendent Jack O’Connell said. “Even with this modest narrowing of the achievement gap, white and Asian students continue to have significantly higher API scores.

“That’s a clear indication the achievement gap continues to exist and continues to leave far too many African-American and Hispanic students behind.”

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