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Lompoc schools testing

Students work in a math class at Vandenberg Middle School on Friday.

Santa Barbara County schools have a lower percentage of students proficient in English and math than the state average, according to state test scores released by the California Department of Education last week.

Additionally, the scores show that five county school districts -- Lompoc Unified, Santa Maria Joint Union, Santa Maria-Bonita, Guadalupe Union and Cuyama Joint Unified -- struggle to attain proficiency in both subjects.

Roughly 36,000 Santa Barbara County students in grades three to eight and 11 took the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) last spring. While 49 percent of California students tested proficient in English and 38 percent met math benchmarks (a slight increase compared to 2016), county data indicates only 44.2 percent of students met English standards and 33.7 percent were proficient in math.

Determining proficiency

Implemented in 2015, the CAASPP assessment measures students' proficiency with Common Core English and math standards. Unlike the former California Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, the test is conducted electronically and classifies results into four categories: standard not met, standard nearly met, standard met and standard exceeded.

"There is a digital element that is a shift in testing that many of our districts are trying to mitigate," said Ellen Barger, Santa Barbara County Education Office assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "They want to ensure students are getting sufficient practice in the digital realm with academic material."

While statewide data trends indicate results improved in 2015 and 2016, they were relatively flat (or declined) in 2017. Barger said she anticipated scores to level off and added that, due to the newness of the test, declines are not unusual. 

"With this being our third year [administering the test,] you tend to see a leveling off due to students and teachers becoming more familiar with the material," Barger said. "Given that this is only the third year, you may have students who are not familiar with the test and standards."

Changes to the California Funding and Accountability models de-emphasized the importance of standardized test results in favor of a comprehensive evaluation of district success. Test results are a good indicator of student performance, Barger said, but the new criteria that schools are evaluated on may not be reflected in test results.

"If you talk to any parent and ask what makes a great school, it's not just the English and math scores," she said. "We've moved away from ranking schools and oversimplifying them down to a single score. [Test results] don't show that students may be achieving in other areas."

Measuring performance

Despite some districts experiencing minor improvement, students in five school districts -- Lompoc Unified, Santa Maria Joint Union, Santa Maria-Bonita, Guadalupe Union and Cuyama Joint Unified -- struggle to reach proficiency in both English and math. Several district officials said they are examining the scores and working to improve student proficiency rates.

"We know test scores are something we need to look at and how students are moving through our course sequences, and how we can, hopefully, better prepare them to work on the assessments," said John Davis, assistant superintendent for curriculum at the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District. "We have to realize that [students] came in a transition era to a new set of standards and assessments. We're looking at the numbers and we're going to focus our energy on making sure we're addressing the standards that are represented in the test."

According to the latest test results, approximately 46 percent of students tested proficient in English while 18.1 percent met math standards, a decline of 1 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively, when compared to 2016. 

Nicole Wiseman, coordinator of curriculum and instruction for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said that districts across the state are grappling with changes to the curriculum and standards.

"[Low test scores] are a systemic problem across the state," she said. "Standards changed [with Common Core] -- many students are having to learn at a different level than [before.] The focus of our work right now is [addressing] the shift in standards and student expectations."

Approximately 27.8 percent of Santa Maria-Bonita students tested proficient in English and 21.2 percent met math benchmarks, increases when compared to 2016. Guadalupe Union tested at the bottom of county school districts, with only 17.7 percent and 7.7 percent of students testing proficient in English and math, respectively. Officials from the school district could not be reached for comment.

John Karbula, assistant superintendent for business services with the Lompoc Unified School District, said no single metric provides a good overview of district performance, but he called the test results an accurate indicator of student performance. 

"There is never one meter that tells you everything you need to know, but it’s very valuable information for us and it gives us accurate information," he said. "[While] no one piece of information really tells you the whole story, [test scores] gives us accurate information that is helpful for seeing what we need to do on a grade-by-grade or individual level."

Bridging the gap

Several administrators suggest low test scores are largely due to the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds and fluency rates. Data provided by the Department of Education indicates a disparity in test scores between students fluent in English and students classified as English learners.

Last year, 22,000 of approximately 70,000 students enrolled in county schools were classified as English learners. While 57.3 percent of students fluent in English met English standards, only 9.7 percent of English learners tested proficient. Math scores followed a similar trend: Approximately 43 percent of students fluent in English were proficient in math; only 9.6 percent of English learners met state benchmarks.

"Districts are working closely with the students to help them set goals and understand the importance of English proficiency and fluency," Barger said. Under the Local Control Funding Formula, districts receive supplemental funding if a certain proportion of students are identified as English learners.

District data indicates roughly 60 percent of students in Santa Maria-Bonita schools are classified as English learners. Wiseman hopes improving English language development opportunities will translate into improved test scores and greater student proficiency.

"Our focus on instruction for English language learners will be a game changer for them," she said. "We need to look at where students are and what services need to be provided to close the achievement gap."

A similar gap presents itself when examining test scores by economic status. Roughly two-thirds of students from economically advantaged backgrounds met or exceeded state English standards, while only one-third of economically disadvantaged students hit state benchmarks. In math, approximately 55.6 percent of economically advantaged students met or exceeded math standards; only 22.2 percent of economically disadvantaged students fared similarly.

"When you look at our district demographics, close to 80 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch," Davis said. "We have a huge population of traditionally underserved students, many of whom are English learners. Three years ago, we went through a dramatic restructuring of our English learner program in the district. We adopted a districtwide curriculum for English learners and have implemented several support structures to do what we can to close that gap."

The Montecito Union School District is one of the top-ranked districts in the state. Administrators spend roughly $27,500 per student -- more than twice the amount spent at Santa Maria-Bonita, Santa Maria Joint Union or Lompoc Unified. Like the achievement gap, Davis believes funding disparities between school districts contribute to lower test scores.

"We've been very pleased with the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula because it did represent an increase in per-pupil spending, which has allowed us to initiate a lot of programs we couldn't do before," he said. "The programs and support [services] will make a tremendous difference over time."

As the school year continues, administrators are undeterred by the test results and committed to improving student proficiency.

“We know that our teachers are very dedicated and they’re working really hard to achieve these goals," said Karbula, from the Lompoc Unified School District. "These scores are meaningful to us and we’re always trying to get better. We want to see growth every year.”

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga