SMMUSD HDQTRS — Students in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District continued their climb toward academic excellence, slightly improving scores on standardized tests issued by the state.

Scores increased in every subject area of the 2011 STAR program exams, with more than 73 percent of students proficient or advanced in English-language arts and science, and more than 60 percent of students proficient or advanced in mathematics and history, according to test results released Monday by the California Department of Education.

Statewide, 54 percent of the approximately 4.7 million students who participated in the testing program scored proficient or above in English and 50 percent scored at proficient or above in mathematics.

More than 8,700 SMMUSD students were tested in grades 2 through 11.

“We are up [from last year] about six points in history, three points in math, four points in science and three points in language arts,” said Maureen Bradford, director of assessment, research and evaluation at the SMMUSD. “We had incremental, steady growth in all of our subject areas and that is the kind of growth that we want, growth that is sustainable.”

That said, school district officials are concerned about the lingering achievement gap that exists between Asian and Caucasian students and their black and Latino counterparts.

“It’s really front and center,” said School Board President Jose Escarce. “Many people have been working on this for many years and I think it would be fair to say we have not made the progress we hoped to make and certainly, looking back, wish we would have made.”

Escarce said the time is now to “re-double our efforts” to ensure that all students, regardless of race or socio-economic background, achieve academically.

According to the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) program exam results, 72 percent of 11th graders who identify themselves as Asian are proficient or advanced in English-language arts and 58 percent proficient or advanced in mathematics. Seventy-five percent of white 11th graders are proficient or advanced in English while 55 percent are proficient or advanced in math.

Now compare those figures with those for Latinos and African Americans. Latinos: 44 percent proficient or advanced in English, and 27 percent in math. African Americans: 30 percent in English and only 17 percent proficient or advanced in math.

Students with disabilities scored even lower, with only 15 percent of special education 11th graders being advanced or proficient in English.

“The district continues to improve and we will use this data to inform our instruction,” Bradford said. “What we want to do is get better.”

District officials are anxiously awaiting the release of another set of data which measures the school district’s yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal education reform law approved by Congress in 2002 that sets benchmarks for improvement that have been widely criticized by educators as unrealistic and counterproductive.

If the SMMUSD does not receive high enough marks, it could be labeled a “program improvement” district under the law, placing it at risk of a variety of punitive actions, including the replacement of teachers and administrators, loss of students and an overhaul of operations.

SMMUSD is not alone. It is estimated that 80 percent of schools across the country will be slated for program improvement, a signal that No Child Left Behind needs to be tweaked, education advocates said.

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the agency, due to Congressional inaction on No Child Left Behind, would offer waivers allowing states to avoid sanctions on schools and districts that fail to meet yearly progress dictated by the law — just as long as they agree to a set of reforms that have yet to be finalized.

California’s participation would depend on the details of those conditions, and the extent to which states can create their own guidelines, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said.

“If the U.S. Department of Education and the administration are actually open to a state-determined accountability system, I would welcome it because flexibility is appropriate, warranted, and urgently needed,” Torlakson said last week. “While the California Department of Education will need to review the details of the secretary’s proposal once they are made available, the need for an alternative model for accountability is clear. And I’m pleased with the progress we are making in our work with the Legislature to put one forward.”

Bradford said the problem with No Child Left Behind is that it imposes new benchmarks each year that are more difficult to reach, some jumping as much as 10 points from one year to the next. Bradford said the target this year was for all students to be in the neighborhood of 68 percent proficient. Next year that climbs to 78 percent of all students.

“Not only are we increasing the percentage of students who are proficient, but within that group we continually see increasing numbers of students who are advanced,” Bradford said. “But that doesn’t give you additional points [under No Child Left Behind.] It’s you are either proficient or you’re not.”

Bradford expects progress reports to be issued in the next few weeks.

Escarce said attempts to get waivers have nothing to do with the school district’s commitment to excellence. He said educators need to be held accountable, however, he believes the way the law is currently structured is “counterproductive.”

“The way the law is put into place, is has many perversities,” he said. “One of them is that it really punishes schools, even if they are making progress. It creates incentives for other states to adopt low bars for declaring kids proficient … . California has set one of the highest bars, which is wonderful, but it really does make it tough for schools in California. The law needs to be changed.”

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