Mother Lode public school students' scores on state standardized tests slipped in some areas this year but improved slightly in others, data released today by the California Department of Education shows.
The 2013 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test results show Tuolumne and Calaveras County students performed best on the science portions of the assessment, while fewer than half scored at the "proficient" level or better in math.
The STAR tests measure students' understanding of core academic subjects and set benchmarks for 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."
Tuolumne County's science scores for fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders represent an improvement over last year, and Calaveras County students posted gains on some science tests.
Both counties' scores slipped slightly in English. But almost 60 percent of Tuolumne County students who took the English test scored at the "proficient" level or better, comparing favorably with 55 percent in Calaveras County and 56 percent statewide.
While 51 percent of California students showed proficiency on the math tests, only 49 percent did so in Calaveras County and 48 percent did so in Tuolumne.
The state has set the "proficient" level or better as a goal for all students, though educators say not all students - even gifted ones - are able to do well on a multiple-choice test like the STAR tests.
"It's not the only way or necessarily the best way to gauge a student's knowledge or abilities," said Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin.
Bulkin said she "welcomed" the transition to a new test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which includes group activities and open-ended responses in addition to multiple-choice questions.
The Smarter Balanced Assessments will arrive in 2015, but students whose schools are trying out the new test next year will never take the STAR tests again, Bulkin said.
Some Tuolumne and Calaveras County schools have shown gains over previous years in certain subjects, while students at other schools were more likely to struggle with the test.
Sonora Union High School District - which has several programs for struggling students - posted a gain in English, with 60 percent of the students reaching the "proficient" level or higher.
At Summerville Union High School, 69 percent of test-takers reach proficiency in English, also a small gain from last year. It was followed by Bret Harte Union High School District, where 61 percent of test-takers reached proficiency.
At Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District - which includes an elementary school and two high schools - 53 percent of students reached the threshold for English. Slightly fewer did so at Calaveras Unified School District.
Math was a more complicated picture for local schools. Calaveras Unified had 47 percent of it students do well on math tests, followed byBig Oak Flat-Groveland at 36 percent, Summerville and Bret Harte at 30 percent Sonora Union High School District at 24 percent.
Seventy-three percent of Sonora Union High School District sophomores attained proficient or advanced level on a general science test, an increase from 59 percent last year.
Summerville followed with 66 percent this year, Bret Harte with 63 percent, Calaveras Unified with 57 percent and Big Oak Flat-Groveland with 52 percent.
Of the smaller school districts in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, the 130-student Belleview School District had the highest percentages of students doing well in English, history and science - representing more than 70 percent of test-takers in each subject.
Belleview was tied for best math scores with Columbia Union School District and Vallecito Union School District, where 71 percent of test-takers reached proficiency in math.
Among elementary school districts, the lowest scores in all four subjects were at Jamestown School District, which had fewer than half its students test as "proficient" in every subject but English.
Comparing STAR scores between school districts can lead to unfair conclusions about schools that have a large number of poor students such as Jamestown, Bulkin said.
She pointed out that teachers there are working just as hard to help students who face tougher challenges learning STAR test material.
Smaller school districts are also more likely to see their numbers vary from year to year, since they're more vulnerable to statistical noise.
"I don't want this to be our sole measure of success," summarized Twain Harte Middle School and Black Oak Elementary School Principal Dan Mayers, who has been worried about slipping scores there in recent years.
"I think we're a nice little school and we've got a lot of other things going on that don't show up in the test scores."
To view STAR test scores for a county, school district or individual school, visit http://star.cde.ca.gov. Contact Brenna Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4529.