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Low Algebra Marks Add Up To Low State Test Scores By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday August 20, 2004

For too many Berkeley public school children X+Y=?  

While Berkeley students again outperformed their cohorts in Alameda County and statewide on the California Standards Test, and sparkled in biology and chemistry, test scores dropped slightly overall and Algebra I remained the district’s Achilles heel, according to the latest round of test scores released Monday by the State Department of Education.  

Berkeley’s results mirrored mostly stagnant test scores across the state on STAR tests after several years of steady gains.  

The state also released results of last spring’s High School Exit Exam, showing that 82 percent of Berkeley tenth graders passed the math and English sections. Last year’s tenth grade class is the first required to pass both portions to receive a diploma. Students who failed will get four more chances to take the test. 

The STAR tests, also taken by students last spring, include the four-year-old California Standards Test (CST) designed to measure achievement in math, history, science, writing and reading against state adopted proficiency standards, and the California Achievement Test, Sixth Edition that compares California students against students nationwide. 

STAR exams are used by the state to determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Schools that repeatedly fail to meet AYP face strict reform including possible state intervention. AYP calculations, based on the test results, are scheduled for release Aug. 31. 

On the CST, 39 percent of Berkeley second graders ranked as “proficient” or “advanced” in English and 57 percent in math. By the fourth grade English proficiency levels rose to 46 percent, but math levels dropped to 47 percent. Test scores plummeted across the board in seventh grade with 39 percent of students ranking proficient or above in English and 33 percent in math. Overall English scores remained relatively stable from second to eleventh grade, but math scores fell every year through the seventh grade. 

Measuring high school math performance is trickier since students in different grades at different skill levels take the same test, but scores on the Algebra I exam defied explanation. 

Of the 756 eighth through eleventh graders tested only 17 percent ranked as “proficient” or “advanced” and 56 percent of students scored “below basic” or “far below basic”. Even among the 425 eighth graders, who are assumed to be more advanced, only 27 percent reached proficiency and 42 percent were below or far below basic. 

“This definitely seems to be an area where a lot of students are struggling,” said district director of curriculum Neil Smith. The district has already implemented two math curriculum improvements including an algebra-only effort in conjunction with San Francisco State University. 

In brighter news, Berkeley students excelled in biology, where 66 percent of students were proficient or better and chemistry where 51 percent hit the same mark. In comparison, throughout the county only 35 percent of students were proficient in biology and 31 percent in chemistry. 

On the CAT/6 Exam, Berkeley students scored between the 47th percentile and the 69th percentile on math, depending on the grade. Math scores dropped from second through seventh grades and then improved through the eleventh grade. 

Berkeley students scored between the 49th percentile and the 64 percentile in reading comprehension and between the 48th percentile and the 65th percentile in language skills, depending on grades. For both subjects scores tended to improve as students progressed through high school. 

Responding to the scores, Smith said, “There’s some disappointment that putting a lot of work into math education and literacy programs didn’t seem to be reflected in the test.” 

He cautioned against reading too much into the results, however. The district has stressed including standardized tests as just one of several measures it uses to calculate student achievement. District officials will enter the results, along with other performance measures, into a database for teachers to see how their students scored last year and how their current crop of students performed. 

Berkeley received better news on the High School Exit Exam, besting the state average with 82 percent of students passing math and English. Statewide 74 percent passed math and 75 percent passed English. 

When sorted into racial groups performance in Berkeley varied but still topped state marks. Among African American students in Berkeley, 58 percent passed math and 64 percent English, compared with 54 percent and 62 percent statewide. Latinos scored higher, with 81 percent passing math and 75 percent passing English compared to 61 percent and 62 percent statewide. Fifty-one percent of Berkeley’s English Language Learners passed English compared to 43 percent statewide. 

Whites and Asians in Berkeley scored highest, with 96 percent of whites passing math and English and 91 percent of Asians passing math and 87 percent English. 

The achievement gap among racial and socioeconomic groups was also evident in the CST. For white elementary school students between 69 percent and 83 percent were “proficient” or “advanced” in English and between 75 percent and 81 percent in math depending on the grade. African American elementary school students scored between 19 percent and 25 percent “proficient” or “advanced” in English and between 19 percent and 37 percent on math, depending on the grade.  

Elementary school students listed as economically disadvantaged scored between 14 percent and 26 percent “proficient” or “advanced” in English and 25 percent and 37 percent in math. 

When compared to neighboring districts on the CST Berkeley students trailed their competition in Albany and Piedmont, both districts with an overwhelming majority of white students. When only white students were compared, however, Berkeley elementary and middle school students outperformed Albany in both math and English and bested Piedmont in math.