Tuolumne and Calaveras county students continued making gains on standardized test scores last spring, but a new test format will challenge both students and teachers in years to come.
Released Friday, the 2012 results of the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessments show that a greater percentage of Mother Lode students reached the “proficient” level or better in core subjects than in 2011.
Students from both counties tended to achieve at higher rates than peers statewide. Across Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, some of the strongest gains were made in elementary school English, junior high school math and high school math.
However, the pattern didn’t hold true for all grades or all schools — with some, like Calaveras High School and Columbia Elementary School, experiencing declines for particular classes.
California began STAR testing in 2003. The tests measure understanding of core academic subjects and set benchmarks for future performance and improvement.
One test — the California Standards Test — gauges knowledge of state-mandated curriculum, including English, math, history and science, from second to 11th grades. Students earn scores classified as far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient or advanced.
Sonora High School freshmen made significant gains in their English scores this year, according to Principal Todd Dearden. Only 1 percent of freshmen scored at the “far below basic” level, an improvement over last year’s 4 percent. Statewide, 6 percent of freshmen scored at “far below basic” this year.
Math scores were a more complicated picture for Sonora High, with 27 percent of 207 test-taking freshmen scoring at the proficient or advanced level in algebra I and 73 percent scoring at basic or below.
That was still an improvement over Sonora High’s 2011 test scores, when only 18 percent of 204 freshmen tested at proficient or above in algebra. In fact, the only area where Sonora High test-takers didn’t improve was 11th-grade math.
The Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy, part of Summerville Union High School District, had the highest percentage of students doing well on the English STAR tests. Eighty-seven percent of 56 Connections freshmen scored at the proficient level or above in English, and 63 percent did so in algebra I.
Summerville High freshmen fared well, with 70 percent of 100 test-taking freshmen scoring proficient or above in English and 48 percent attaining that level in algebra. Both percentages were an improvement over 2011 and exceeded state levels by a wide margin.
Bret Harte High School freshmen also made gains on the English portion of the STAR tests, with 68 percent scoring at proficient or above compared with 64 percent last year.
Calaveras High freshmen’s scores slipped slightly, but they still attained proficient levels at slightly higher rates than students statewide.
While Columbia Elementary School students made gains at some grade levels, English scores for eighth graders appeared to slip significantly from 2011 — when 85 percent of 53 eighth graders tested at proficient or above.
This year’s rate was 66 percent for 51 students, bested by Sonora Elementary’s 72 percent for 56 students.
Sonora Elementary eighth-graders also exceeded Columbia in general math scores, with 53 percent of students testing proficient or above versus Columbia’s 37 percent.
Sonora Elementary tested nine more eighth graders in math than Columbia Elementary did, but both schools improved their math scores over last year. Soulsbyville Elementary School followed a similar pattern as Columbia, with a slip in eighth grade English scores but gain in math.
Because the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 imposes penalties on schools for failing to improve standardized test scores, STAR scores are a frequent topic of discussion among school administrators and board members.
Bret Harte Union High School District Superintendent Mike Chimente said a staff member is analyzing the school’s scores, assembling charts and calculating its Academic Performance Index, or API.
“What I noticed is that we had a significant movement from ‘below basic’ and ‘far below basic’ to the basic range,” Chimente said. “That’s huge ... It’s probably harder to move from those two to the middle.”
However, Chimente believes the STAR tests focus too much on snapshots in time rather than student growth over the years. The Smarter Balanced Assessments, which incorporate technology and new national teaching standards, will provide a more holistic look at achievement, he said.
The 2012-13 school year will be the beginning of the end for the STAR tests, which will be replaced by the Smarter Balanced tests by 2014-15. While an improvement, the new assessments and Common Core teaching standards will cause a temporary drop in test scores as the education system adjusts on a limited budget.
“It’s going to be a huge lag,” Dearden said. “We have new adopted standards, but we don’t have new textbooks … and we haven’t even started teaching them yet.”