Students in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district outperformed their peers on California’s new academic aptitude tests, but officials stressed that the results are merely a baseline for the future and that more work must be done to close achievement gaps.

About 68 percent of SMMUSD students who took the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress exams met or exceeded standards for English language arts and literacy, while 57 percent of students met or exceeded standards for math, according to data released this month by the state education department.

Those numbers compare favorably to the 44 percent of California students who met or exceeded English standards and the 34 percent who met or exceeded math standards.

Nearly 98 percent of eligible SMMUSD students took the new tests, which replaced the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) system and which are given to students in grades 3-8, as well as high school juniors.

Santa Monica-Malibu district officials said the new tests offer valuable data and feedback for teachers and administrators, as they identify strengths and assist students in subjects needing improvement.

“We are carefully reviewing the results for SMMUSD students and appreciate the efforts of our teachers, staff and PTA groups for helping our parents understand the purpose of this testing and providing support to their students in preparation for these rigorous exams,” district Supt. Sandra Lyon said in a release.

The new exams are designed to be taken on computers and tablets, and they are fundamentally different in how they evaluate student knowledge. Emphasizing critical-thinking and problem-solving skills over memorization and multiple-choice guessing, the so-called Smarter Balanced assessments are aligned with Common Core principles and give students harder questions when they answer correctly.

“California is in the process of transforming its schools with increased funding, higher academic standards, more local control, and additional support for students and schools with the greatest needs, and this will take time,” state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson said in a press release. “This is our first academic check-up on how that work is going, and so I ask parents and educators to take that into account, use this information wisely to help their students, and understand this is a baseline that we will build upon.”

Locally, the data paints an alarming portrait of achievement as SMMUSD continues working to reduce longstanding gaps in academic performance between black and Latino students and their peers.

Pass rates in English varied greatly along racial lines, from 45 percent among African-American students and 48 percent among Hispanic students to 78 percent for white students and 83 percent for Asians.

Similar disparities were found in math, where just 30 percent of black SMMUSD test-takers and 33 percent of Latino students met or exceeded standard. Those rates jumped to 69 percent and 77 percent for white and Asian students in the district, respectively.

Stark gulfs existed across socioeconomic lines as well. Half of students determined to be economically disadvantaged met or exceeded English standards, compared to 71 percent of their better-off peers. Just 37 percent of poorer students met or exceeded the math standards, while 60 percent of their wealthier peers reached or surpassed the benchmarks.

The data arrive following the district’s hiring of educator and sociologist Pedro Noguera, who is tasked with improving equity at local schools.

“Clearly, we must continue working to eliminate these gaps,” Torlakson said.

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