Some in local public education circles no doubt are suggesting that the slight improvements in reading and mathematics proficiencies shown in last month's release of California Standards Test data is somewhat akin to looking at the water glass as being half full rather than half empty.
The problem with applying that well-worn analogy is that the glass is not even close to being half full. Fewer than half -- 41 percent to be exact -- of San Diego County students are proficient readers, while only 43.3 percent of the county's second- through eighth-graders have reached grade-level achievement in math. The reading proficiency percentage climbed one-half a percentage point in the 2003-04 school year from the previous year. Still, it's improvement, and that's good -- even if it is in the most modest of terms.
The series of Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams that students in grades 2 through 11 took throughout the state last spring covered English-language arts, math, science and history-social science. Fourth and seventh graders also wrote an essay as part of the state's standardized testing program.
In most grades, the county's white students are scoring proficient or above on the English language arts tests at more than twice the rate Latinos and blacks. For instance, white seventh-graders, as one group, are achieving math proficiency at three times the rate their Latino and black classmates are.
Considering the large numbers of English learners our area schools have, English fluency may be a factor in reading scores, but should only have a small impact on the learning of the more universal applications of mathematics. Both findings continue to add to the disturbing evidence of the continuing achievement gap between ethnic and socio-economic groups of students in our public schools.
At best, the latest test results "flat-lined," to quote Dennis Johnston, the director of assessment for the county Office of Education. But he added, and I agree, that the results indicate the tests are indicators of student progress and that schools will have to work smarter to boost test scores.
While they do provide measurements, the STAR program results are not as valid and reliable indicators of student progress as would be available if the state would but use "longitudinal matched" data that track the achievement of each student as he or she progresses through the grades rather than testing one group of, say, fourth graders this year against a completely different group of fourth graders next year.
Test results, at best, are snapshots taken at one point in time. They can best serve teachers who need to look at them as a measure of how students as a whole performed in their class -- which the use of longitudinal matched data would provide. However, teachers so often don't have access to current information that could help them, or to the information that provides the accountability needed to demand improved student achievement.
The summary test results posted on the Internet or published in local newspapers are little more than headlines; they certainly don't provide even the beginning of a complete assessment. Teachers need more detailed data to show where and how to meet their individual students' academic needs. In any given classroom, there are students who already are proficient in math, reading and other topics sitting next to classmates who are just getting by, and others who are far below achievement levels.
Teachers also need to use multiple levels of assessment. One key to raising student achievement is to use common assessments designed to assess the knowledge and skills that teachers agree are central to their curriculum. Teachers can administer these assessments four times during the school year and meet weekly to analyze results, target specific goals for improvement, generate ideas to try out in their classrooms and monitor their results.
There is some encouraging news in public education, most notably the recent results of the state's new High School Exit Exam that show local students have a higher passing rate than others throughout the state.
The exit exam was first administered three years ago as a requirement for graduation this past spring; however, only one out of five members of the Class of 2004 would have graduated because of failing part or all of the exam. Since then, the state revised the exam to test proficiencies in the same standards and knowledge but in a way that makes it easier for students to demonstrate what they know.
Nobody in public education has ever promised that improving student achievement is a quick or overnight feat. The changing cultural environments from which our children come into our public schools today, as well as other societal factors, make the "one size fits all" approach to education entirely obsolete and of no value.
It occurs to me that those of us interested in providing today's children with a quality education need two attributes: (1) a steady and focused determination to demand nothing less in our public schools, and (2) a reasonable dose of patience to stay the course and understand that any change as drastic as improved student achievement doesn't happen overnight.
Nobody said educational excellence would be easy.
Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at email@example.com.