SMMUSD HDQTRS — African American students in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District did worse on state standardized tests this year compared with 2009, despite significant improvements by the overall student body on the exams.

The average SMMUSD student received a score of 844 on the California Department of Education’s Academic Performance Index this year, an 11 point increase from the year before.

But in a setback for the district’s goal of closing the achievement gap that separates minority students from others who attend SMMUSD, African American students’ average test score decreased 7 points this year, from 727 to 720.

While several board members said the results were a sign the district needs to change its approach to teaching African American students, officials called the 2010 results an anomaly.

Maureen Bradford, director of educational services, pointed out African American students’ scores have steadily increased from an average of 661 in 2004.

“There is an expectation that each year there will be ups and downs,” she said. “Seven points is a big dip, but it’s one year and this is a really small group. It’s much easier to make an impact overall if there are fewer students.”

The results reflected the scores of 360 African American students, out of 8,547 students in the district who were tested. The API scores are compiled from several statewide standardized tests, including the California Standards Test, which measures students’ abilities in English language, math, science and social studies.

Asian American students performed best on the tests, with an average score of 911, down one point from 2009, followed by white students, who averaged 888, up from 877 the year before. Hispanic students increased their average score to 763, from 749 in 2009.

The statewide API goal is for scores to improve by five points per year until they reach 800.

School board president Barry Snell, the lone African American on the board, said the latest results show the district needs to re-assess its efforts to close the achievement gap.

“I believe that we’ve got to change the way that we’re looking at instruction for African American children, particularly African American males,” he said. “We as a school district need to make it a priority that we’re going to change the way things are going. It’s just very difficult for me sitting on the board to keep looking at these kinds of numbers.”

Despite the district’s improvement on state standardized tests, SMMUSD for the first time failed to make “adequate yearly progress” as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law. If the district fails to make adequate progress again next year, it would fall into “program improvement,” a classification that would subject SMMUSD to additional program reviews and assessments.

District officials this week said the failure to make adequate yearly progress under federal standards was concerning but was mostly a reflection of the law’s overly aggressive timeline for improvement. Federal standards are aimed at bringing 100 percent of students up to a proficient level in English and math by 2014.

“The federal law is flawed in holding school districts to an unrealistic standard,” said school board member Oscar de la Torre. “Eventually almost every school district in America will be in program improvement.”

Bradford agreed the standards for assessing yearly progress need to be reconsidered.

“When the law was originally written [in 2001] I don’t think that the legislators actually anticipated it remaining in effect a long as it has without some revisiting of the methodology for determining whether or not schools and districts are making progress,” she said.

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