SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica ranked in the middle of the pack amongst a sampling of California school districts evaluated on how well they served Latino, African-American and low-income students, according to a report released this week.

Education Trust-West, an education nonprofit, gave SMMUSD a C on its third annual report card, which assigns traditional letter grades to four indicators to show how well minority and low-income students do in school.

Those include performance on standardized tests, how academic achievement has improved or worsened over five years, the gap in achievement between different student groups and overall college readiness.

While SMMUSD beat out most other districts on how well those students performed on tests, Education Trust-West gave it a failing grade for the wide gap between the performance of low-income and minority students and their white counterparts.

That gap is measured using a tool called the Academic Performance Index, or API, a single number that represents the sum total of a student’s standardized testing for the year. It ranges from a low of 200 to a high of 1,000, and the state Department of Education created a goal for all students to achieve an 800 or better.

None of the three groups — African-America, Latino or low-income — achieved that 800-point goal, landing SMMUSD a solid B for overall academic performance.

It was, however, the gap between those students and white students that really sunk the score.

White students received a score of 907 in the 2011-12 school year. That’s compared to 784 for Latino students and 735 for African-American students, a more than 100-point gap.

That’s too much, said Lindsay Stuart, data and policy analyst at Education Trust-West.

“For a district like (SMMUSD), they still have a long way to go,” Stuart said. “They’re below 800. There are districts at the same performance level as (SMMUSD) that are making more rapid gains.”

This isn’t news to school officials, who have put a renewed focus on closing the achievement gap for the 2013-14 school year.

Although the district has long-standing programs meant to engage students of color and low-income students that have met with success like Young Collegians, a program to encourage students to go to college, or culturally-specific tutoring, Terry Deloria and Peggy Harris of the Educational Services Department unveiled a new approach in January that officials hope will push the district forward in its goals.

By the numbers

Key to this approach is data, Deloria said Friday.

The district worked hard to push all of its students to take college-readiness courses, which led to the sole A-grade on the Education Trust-West report card. That same approach will not work to close the achievement gap because teachers need to know which students need help and where they need it.

Achievement data broken down by racial group and even down to the individual level is a relatively new concept in the education community, one that took off after the passage of sweeping school reforms in 2001, better known as No Child Left Behind, Deloria said.

The federal education bill signed by President George W. Bush got bad scores from instructors, who felt some of the mandates were too drastic, but it had the positive benefit of opening the floodgates for data collection on students.

That will help teachers target instruction to students, Deloria said.

“We need to identify what each student needs, and make sure they get it,” she said.

It’s a route that worked well for Baldwin Park Unified School District, a district in West Covina, Calif. that received the highest grade awarded by Education Trust-West this year, a B.

Student data played a huge role in that, said Arturo Ortega, Baldwin Park’s assistant superintendent of student achievement for grades K-6.

“It helps us inform instruction, programs and whatever necessary things we have to do at our school sites,” Ortega said. “Numbers don’t lie.”

Pleasant View Elementary, one of the schools in the district, gives weekly assessments in language arts and mathematics.

Teachers then use those results to decide which standards to re-teach and pull students they need to focus on for interventions, said Russhell Martinez Ortega, the principal of the elementary school.

It falls into the district’s mantra: Assess, instruct, analyze, act.

The strategy has been working, said Mark M. Skvarna, superintendent of the Baldwin Park district.

“I feel good,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for quite a few years, and the scores go up and up and up. I’ll go on the record and say it will be (an A) next year.”

SMMUSD leadership also has confidence in the district’s new approach.

“It’s a renewed focus and a more systematic and systemic approach we’re trying to take,” said Laurie Lieberman, president of the Board of Education.

The stage is now set for action. California voters approved Proposition 30 in November, a mix of tax increases that is expected to pump $6 billion into the state’s schools.

Local voters also gave the thumbs up to a $385 million bond measure that will fund safety improvements and educational technologies at local schools, and a new districtwide fundraising policy will help the district pay for extra training for teachers to help address the achievement gap.

“If any district is poised to close the achievement gap, it’s this district,” Deloria said.

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