Students: An excerpt from an assessment grid for nine students. Each horizontal row represents one student. Columns where most students are “green” but one is “red” show a single student struggling. Columns with many “reds” and “yellows” show areas where a whole class has not grasped a concept. Courtesy image

One of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s perennial priorities is closing the achievement gap. To that end, the District continues to gather data in an attempt to track the academic success of individual students and subsets broken down by race, socioeconomic situation and English language proficiency.

As the District put it: “The use of data enhances the district’s ability to create a culture of accountability, focus, coherence, and clear and intentional expectations of learning among all stakeholders. In order to accomplish this, we must leverage our data in a way that challenges assumptions, beliefs, and, ultimately, behaviors and practices that lead to student success. Strategic use of data to influence behavior and practice requires specific organization and narration of the data that is digestible, specific, and intentional.”

On Thursday, Feb. 10, District staff presented the latest data on student achievement in the District. The data was collected beginning in the fall of 2020.

Assessments were broken down into two categories: “diagnostic,” how skills develop over time; and “interim,” a narrow set of curriculum standards. They were further broken down into two focus areas: English language arts and mathematics.

Data showed a mixed bag of results. About 90 percent of middle school students received no Ds or Fs, with “little to no variation in the percentage of students with Ds or Fs by racial or ethnic groups,” according to Alicia Baillie, the District’s Director of Assessment, Research and Evaluation. Among socio-economically disadvantaged middle school students, 83 percent received no Ds or Fs, which Baillie also considered a success.

However, English learners and homeless or foster youth were 15 percent more likely to get Ds or Fs than their counterparts. Students with disabilities were also more likely to receive Ds or Fs, falling six percent below the average scores for SMMUSD middle schoolers.

“Seventy-five percent is still a good percentage when you look at it compared to nationally; however, SMMUSD here doesn’t settle for good enough, right? And so that’s why we focus on it and identify it and call it out,” Bailie said.

The gap widened in high school. Whereas 82 percent of high school students received no Ds or Fs, only 52 percent of English language learners could say the same, indicating a 30 percent gap in achievement.

Jacqueline Mora, Assistant Superintendent for Education Services at SMMUSD, also pointed out English language learners: 55 of the District’s English language learners were reclassified, meaning they had achieved proficiency in English and were no longer grouped with students struggling with English. Of those, 27 were English learners with IEPs, meaning they were in an individualized education program.

“We are very proud of this data point, because again, that really speaks to the ESL [English as a second language] programs that are in place, and the supports that are being provided for our students,” Mora said.

Superintendent Ben Drati, himself an immigrant to the United States, remarked on being an English language learner as a child and his own journey toward being “declassified.”

“I’m very proud of the fact that at this District, the teachers, the principals do an awesome job of doing that, because our reclassified students outpace some of our English-onlys because of those efforts,” Drati said.

While 90 percent or more of elementary school students participated in diagnostic tests in English language arts, only about 66 to 70 percent of high school students participated in diagnostic tests for math.

One parent who spoke at the meeting, Nikki Kolhoff, said that her family never participates in District data gathering, calling it a “total waste of time.”

“Parents and students don’t even get results most of the time. There is no reason for you to be testing our kids; we don’t even get to know what the test is for and how they did,” Kolhoff said. “The teachers don’t always get the results in any meaningful way, either. The classroom experience doesn’t change because of these results.”

In response to the complaint, Bailie walked through a sample assessment, showing how a grid of results from multiple students can show areas where a single student is struggling, signaling a need for more personalized attention, versus areas where multiple students are not meeting expectations, signaling that the teacher should focus more on the subject for the entire class.

Board Member Jon Kean in particular took umbrage to Kolhoff’s remarks.

“It’s incredibly disappointing to hear people belittle this work,” Kean said, adding that it was “wonderful if your student has no needs,” but that it’s relevant for many students who are in need of specialized support.

“How do we ever improve if we don’t see where we are?” Kean added, requesting that in the future parents might receive a more detailed breakdown of their child’s scores than what is currently provided.