The latest test scores show that student performance among Mountain View's most needy students significantly improved last school year, indicating that a concerted effort to close the achievement gap at the city's lowest-performing schools could be working. At the same time, high school district officials are grappling with the opposite situation, following an unexpected drop in test scores.
Last week, the California Department of Education released test scores for the state's public schools, with the upbeat message that more students are making the grade.
In the 2014-15 school year, 44 percent of the state's students either met or exceeded state standards for English-language arts and 31 percent met the standards for math. In other words, a majority of students were not on the track for college readiness, setting a bleak starting point for the new Common Core-aligned assessment.
The 2015-16 test, which students took in the spring, shows that the scores have since improved, with 49 percent of students now meeting state standards for English-language arts and 35 percent meeting the standards for math. In a press release last week, state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said the improvement is likely the result of being another year into transitioning to new standards, increasing familiarity with the online test, and the use of interim tests to prepare students for the real thing.
The Mountain View Whisman School District saw a greater improvement in student performance. Nearly two-thirds of the students tested met the standards for English-language arts and 60 percent met the standards for math -- a 6 percent increase on both fronts from last year. And among the district's Latino and economically disadvantaged students, those improvements were even larger.
Ground zero for closing the achievement gap in the district is at Castro and Theuerkauf, the schools with the highest concentration of low-income and minority students.
At Castro, for example, 76 percent of the students are classified as English-language learners, and 82 percent are deemed economically disadvantaged by the state.
Last year, the school launched a barrage of new programs to help bring up student performance, adding longer school days, after-school help, professional development for teachers and an "intervention resource teacher" to provide students with the remedial help they need to keep up with their peers. The entire battle plan cost an estimated $538,000.
The latest test scores suggest the new academic programs could be making a big difference. Castro's economically disadvantaged students scored vastly higher than they did last year: In English-language arts, 39 percent met state standards this year, compared with 21 percent last year; and 31 percent met the standards for math, up from 20 percent last year.
English-language learners at the school also made substantial gains, with 19 percent meeting the state standards for English-language arts, compared with 8 percent the year before, and 16 percent meeting the standards in math, up from 13 percent.
Test scores among the neediest students at Theuerkauf also climbed this year, even though the school is a year behind Castro in launching a comprehensive plan to close the achievement gap using supplemental money from the district.
Across the entire district, however, students not fluent in English struggled to keep up. The 2015-16 test scores showed that more English learners met the state standards this year, but at a slower rate than the rest of the state. In math, for example, 18 percent of English-language learners met or exceeded state standards, compared with 17 percent last year.
In a press release last week, district officials said that improving poor student performance among English-language learners and students with disabilities remains a top priority.
Although test scores across the state have improved, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District saw a reverse trend. Scores for the 2015-16 school year showed that 69 percent of junior-year students tested met the state standards for English- language arts -- a decrease from 75 percent last year. And the number of students meeting the mark for math dropped from 65 percent to 64 percent.
Fewer students met state standards in English-language arts across nearly all subgroups, including ethnicity, economic background and English fluency, with the biggest decreases in performance among Latino and economically disadvantaged students.
Superintendent Jeff Harding told the Voice in an email that school and district staff will be digging into the data to find an explanation for the decrease in performance for the 2015-16 school year.
Harding noted that despite the decrease in test scores, students continue to do very well on state and national tests, including Advanced Placement exams and the SAT, and many students continue to be accepted "in high numbers" to prominent colleges and universities.
"We feel confident that our students are receiving the highest level of teaching and support at MVLA," he said.
One commonality among all three of the school districts serving Mountain View students -- the Los Altos district, the Mountain View Whisman district and the high school district -- is that the achievement gap continues to be larger here than across the county and the state.
Local students from low-income families, for example, tend to perform much worse on state standardized tests no matter what school district they are enrolled in. Economically disadvantaged students in the Los Altos district performed better than the state and countywide average, with 40 percent meeting state standards for math. But compared with their more affluent peers, of whom 88 percent met the standards, the 48-point gap shows a big discrepancy in student achievement. Similar gaps in performance among economically disadvantaged students can be seen across both subjects in all three districts.
High school district officials announced earlier this year that they would be searching for a way to close the stubborn achievement gap present among Mountain View's teens, but found no simple solution to the problem. One of the primary challenges the district faces is that it serves a large population of both high-achieving and low-achieving students, and must tailor programs that serve both groups.
The Mountain View Whisman district completed its five-year strategic plan earlier this year, which outlines nine initiatives designed to help increase English literacy and improve performance in English-language arts, math and science, and increase the effectiveness of special education programs.