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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Test scores don't tell the whole story

For San Diego's North County Times

Last August, we learned that California students scored a two-percentage-point increase in grade level proficiency in mathematics and English on the California Standards Tests (STARS). Now, 52 percent of our kids are proficient in English, 48 percent in math.

At the average rate of improvement over the last seven years, all students should be proficient by about 2025. The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was to raise all children to proficiency by the 2013-14 school year. The gap separating students by ethnicity has barely budged.

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek recently compared the test scores of students worldwide who are most likely to get the best jobs in the future. As reported by the Atlantic's Amanda Ripley ("Your Child Left Behind," Dec. 2010), U.S. 15-year-olds lag far behind their peers in about 30 other countries in advanced level proficiency in mathematics. California's 4.6 percent falls short of the 6 percent national average, as well that of 34 other states.

While State Superintendent Jack O'Connell boasts of annual two to three-point test score increases, the fact that more than half of California students are unable to reach grade level in math after seven years of No Child Left Behind is alarming in the world's increasingly competitive job market.

A closer look at the August 2010 STARS results raises even more concerns about the ability of our local students to compete for jobs requiring increasingly stronger technical skills.

Algebra is a gateway subject, not only for success in college, but for occupations that may not require a college degree but call for abstract reasoning skills beyond basic arithmetic for jobs that pay more than minimum wage.

A small sample of North County school district scores shows the usual: The haves do better than the have-nots. But even in Carlsbad, with a median household income of $101,000, only 48 percent of students are proficient in Algebra I. In Vista and Oceanside, with household incomes of $68,000 and $69,000, just 35 and 36 percent are at grade level or higher.

Hanushek points to Massachusetts, the state with the highest scores, as an example of how reform has led to improvement. Meaningful outcomes are demanded from everyone in the school building ---- students, teachers and administrators.

The Stanford economist acknowledges the common "diversity excuse" for poor academic performance. "All these immigrants are dragging us down," they say, "but our kids are doing fine." People will find it quite shocking, according to Hanushek, that "even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive."

That should be a wake-up call for all of us, regardless of our ethnicity or family income.

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