California's public schools have raised their scores on a nationally standardized test for a fourth straight year, but most students have not mastered the more rigorous lessons the state says they need to learn, according to statistics released Thursday.
Only one-third of the state's students are proficient in reading, math, history and science as defined by California's tough new academic standards.
The gap between what students are supposed to know and what they do know is larger in urban school systems such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, where a mere 16% of sixth-graders met the state standards in reading and writing this year--even as their scores rose on the national Stanford 9 test.
"This is no time to pop a champagne cork, but all children are showing improvement, regardless of race, income or family background," said Gov. Gray Davis, who had vowed not to seek reelection in November unless scores on the Stanford 9 tests rose.
Nearly 4.6 million California students in grades 2 to 11 took two sets of exams this spring: the Stanford 9, which compares them to a national sample, and companion tests that judge how well they understand the reading, math and other material the state wants them to know.
Davis and other state leaders expressed satisfaction with the improving Stanford 9 scores, even if the rise this year was modest. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, those results showed that 45% of students statewide are at or above the national average in reading and 55% in math. That continues four years of gains: up 2.1 percentage points in math and 0.7 point in reading since last year and 12.6 points in math and 5.6 points in reading since 1998.
At the same time, state officials said schools need to focus more on meeting state standards in reading, math, history and science and teach the detailed sets of knowledge those entail.
Just 33% of California students were at or above the proficiency level in English-language arts this year and 35% in math. Proficiency means students are acquiring skills that will ready them for a four-year university.
Some schools have a long way to go.
"Is it heartbreaking? It definitely is," said Irene Herrera-Stewart, who oversees instruction in several South Los Angeles high schools, about the results at Locke High, where as few as 3% of students are proficient readers under the state goals.
Educators said they expected the subpar performance on the state standards because California has set guidelines that are among the toughest in the nation.
"The bar has been raised at every grade level. That would suggest in the opening years we wouldn't expect to see big gains," said Bruce Fuller, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank at UC Berkeley and Stanford.
Officials noted, however, that the English results were slightly better than a year ago, which was the first time such proficiency levels were measured. (Similar levels in math, history and science were added this year.)
And fewer elementary students landed in the very lowest performance rungs--"below basic" and "far below basic"--this year compared with last year in English-language arts.
"The gap between high-and low-achieving students is wide but shrinking," said Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction. "That's significant."
The standards scores are especially significant because, starting next year, they will serve as the primary way to evaluate California's 8,000 schools.
Those and the new Stanford 9 scores arrive at a time when school districts face increasing pressure to demonstrate success.
Schools that significantly raise their scores can win cash rewards. Those that fail to improve can face sanctions, possibly having teachers and administrators transferred or school doors closed altogether.
The state results, released over the Internet (at star.cde.ca.gov), reveal several trends since the Stanford 9 was first given in the spring of 1998:
* The statewide achievement gap between poor and affluent students in reading and math has widened in every grade over the last five years, a pattern repeated in Los Angeles County and Los Angeles Unified, according to The Times' analysis.
* Elementary schools have driven the annual test score increases, with second-and third-graders earning the best marks and the biggest gains. Some experts attribute that to smaller classes, better teacher training and more structured reading and math programs in those lower grades. Middle schools have made smaller improvements, while high school performance has remained essentially flat.
Los Angeles Unified, in particular, has posted large annual Stanford 9 testing gains in elementary schools that have outpaced the state as a whole. For example, 44% of second-graders in the district performed at or above the national average in reading on the Stanford 9, compared with 34% the year before. In math, 39% of L.A. Unified sixth-graders were at or above the national average, a rise of four points from 2001.