Education

State test scores released; Merced County kids doing better

Elizabeth Murdock, 19, a California State University, Stanislaus, student, speaks to Merced resident Joyce Ochoa, 7, during an engineering exercise of the Fun Brain Games and STEM Camp at the Boys and Girls Club in Merced on Thursday, June 23, 2016. The program, which consists of Stanislaus State students teaching children about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, is one of many offered during the summer to keep children academically active.
Elizabeth Murdock, 19, a California State University, Stanislaus, student, speaks to Merced resident Joyce Ochoa, 7, during an engineering exercise of the Fun Brain Games and STEM Camp at the Boys and Girls Club in Merced on Thursday, June 23, 2016. The program, which consists of Stanislaus State students teaching children about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, is one of many offered during the summer to keep children academically active. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

Drum roll, please. The 2016 state test results are now available and scores have gone up. In this region, results in English rose significantly while math remained a tougher subject.

The sprawling Merced Union High School District made 5-point gains in both subjects, rising to 55 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in English and 25 percent in math.

“We were pleased to see increases for the district and most schools in both math and English language arts. Teachers are doing a great job becoming familiar with the new standards and preparing students for the format of the online assessments,” said Superintendent Alan Peterson via email Wednesday.

The Merced City School District also made gains across the board. “Seven percent (in English) and 4 percent (in math) isn’t maybe exciting for some, but it’s exciting for us,” said Paula Heupel, assistant superintendent of educational services for the district.

The improvement brought the K-8 district to 36 percent in English and 22 percent in math.

The growth came despite tumult from the district switching its sixth-grade classrooms to elementary schools last year, leaving its middle schools with only seventh and eighth grades. “It was quite an adjustment,” Heupel said. “Now things are settled and we’re ready to go.”

Statewide, nearly half of test takers – 49 percent – were at or above grade level in English and 37 percent passed the bar in math, according to results made public Wednesday. Individual student scores are not public, but reports are sent to parents. This year’s two-page explanation includes how students did last year, as well as how the child fared in key areas within each subject, such as writing or following instructions.

Teachers are doing a great job becoming familiar with the new standards and preparing students for the format of the online assessments.

Alan Peterson, MUHSD superintendent

To put the overall numbers in perspective, on the last state multiple-choice test given in 2013 – a far easier and very familiar test of simpler standards – 56 percent of kids statewide tested as making the grade in English, 51 percent in math. The rough analogy, while not scientifically valid because they are such different measures, suggests students are making up ground they lost when first asked to tackle the more challenging lessons of Common Core standards.

The 2016 test is the first Common Core measure that officially counts. Students took a field test of the Smarter Balanced system in 2014, and in 2015 scores were called only a baseline. These numbers, however, will figure into calculations of how well schools are doing and how effectively they are spending their money.

“We are waiting to see how these assessments fit into the new accountability system the state is finalizing and how we will use these assessments along with other measures to help prepare all of our students to be college- and career-ready,” Peterson said.

At Merced’s elementary schools, higher funding for English learners and poor students was put to work extending the school day with short-term sessions meant to focus on what teachers saw was needed, Heupel said. School buses transported students who stayed late for extra help from teachers or community groups active in the arts or sciences.

“We found so many learning applications from that in an enjoyable setting. It makes kids want to learn – they don’t even know they’re learning,” Heupel said.

Last year the district revamped its math program. This year the district updated its English program and process for giving extra help to English learners. “We’re excited about what the future holds for our district,” she said.

38 Percentage of Merced County students at or above grade level in reading and writing

Testing covered 3.2 million California kids in grades 3 through 8 and 11. The computer-adapted tests shift questions, depending on the student’s hits and misses, to pinpoint what they know. Students also have to do a practical task solving a real-world problem and answer essay questions, a major shift from the multiple-choice tests they replaced.

Less than 1 percent of students – 22,763 – opted out across California, despite a widespread campaign that met with greater success in other states, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

“This low rate of parental exemption indicates that our parents and students see the value of measuring the skills of all students against the same standards the same way, using one common yardstick, and one shared goal: learning,” Torlakson said.

What the yardstick showed in this region was greater focus on English skills, with those numbers starting the highest and growing the most.

Across Merced County, McSwain Elementary District earned the best scores in both English and math: 60 percent and 39 percent proficient, respectively. Le Grand High School District and Merced River showed the greatest improvements, both posting double-digit gains over last year in math and English.

Dos Palos performed the worst on the language arts test for a second year, with more than 79 percent of students missing the mark. Planada and Gustine received the poorest scores in math, with only 13 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards.

23 Percentage of Merced County students passing the bar in math

Statewide only 37 percent of students scored at grade level in math, and counties in this region did significantly worse. In Merced, 23 percent of children did well on math tests. Calaveras and Tuolumne counties had 32 percent of students beating the proficiency mark, trailed by Mariposa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus, at 25 percent.

English scores locally were better, with 38 percent of Merced County students listed as proficient, the same as San Joaquin. Calaveras came closest to the state average with 46 percent, followed by Tuolumne, Mariposa and Stanislaus, with 41 percent at grade level.

Steve Gomes, Merced County superintendent of schools, said he was excited for the slight increase in the countywide language arts score. Three percentage points may seem small to most people, but he sees that as 900 students improving.

“The numbers indicate we’re on track,” he said.

Last year, Gomes published an op-ed in the Merced Sun-Star noting it will take time to see major results in the test scores as students and teachers make adjustments in teaching, learning and test taking.

Individual student scores are reported to parents by mail. In addition, California provides a dedicated Web site, http://caaspp.cde.ca.gov, where parents and the public can view and compare aggregated results among schools, districts, and counties along with statewide results.

The California Department of Education provides a wide range of tools for parents at http://testscoreguide.org, a new website with grade-by-grade, subject-by-subject information; detailed online guides to use in analyzing results; and practice tests at every grade level in English.

California State PTA is also offering its online parent-friendly testing information at www.capta.org.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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