Kathy Onoye, left, executive director of elementary education for the… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

California students continued making strides on standardized English and math tests based on results released Friday, but less than half of the students in Los Angeles are performing at grade level.

In all, 57% of California students scored as proficient or better in English and 51% scored that high in math. In the L.A. Unified School District, those numbers were 48% in English and 45% in math.

"The good news has been the steady progress despite the chaos of budget cuts," state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said. "California has gone from having only one student in three score proficient, to better than one student in two — 900,000 more students than in 2003. This is not anything to rest upon, but it is a considerable measure of progress. We're headed in the right direction."

A gap persists, however, between white and Asian students when compared with their black and Latino peers. And a similar gap separates students from higher-income families and low-income households.

Younger students also continue to outscore older ones. In L.A. Unified, for example, 63% of elementary students test at grade level or better in math, but only 30% of students do so in middle and high school.

While algebra achievement remained low, scores notched upward from the last academic year: In seventh grade, the percentage of students who were proficient or better rose from 77% to 81%; in eighth grade, those numbers increased from 32% to 35%; for ninth-graders, from 13% to 15%.

Districtwide efforts to improve math scores have included requiring top local administrators to visit every algebra class in their area and report back to L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy. Students who weren't ready for algebra by eighth grade were allowed to take a preparation course instead. And students doing poorly in first-semester algebra could be assigned in the second semester to more effective teachers.

Deasy found much to celebrate.

"I am incredibly pleased with the progress over time," Deasy said. He added that the test results should be understood in the context of broader progress, including a reduction in suspensions, better attendance and more students passing the state high school exit exam.

Deasy's contract calls for improved test scores, among other provisions, and he is pushing to link part of teachers' performance evaluations to their students' scores.

Deasy said he was happy and relieved at gains in English, which outpaced the state. Last year, L.A. Unified began a new elementary reading program, and he had worried that the adjustment could have initially dragged down results.

Among the most-improved schools were those where officials took aggressive, controversial action. Last year, for example, L.A. Unified required staff at four middle schools to reapply for their jobs.

At the time, teachers, union leaders and at least one school board member criticized the moves as unfair and cited research showing that such instant makeovers have a mixed record.

But after one year, the trend is upward, with each school improving in English and math. Luther Burbank Middle School is the apparent star of the group, with one-year gains of 14 percentage points in English and 11 percentage points in math.

There, administrators required teachers to engage students in class discussions or projects for at least half the lesson.

"We wanted kids not to be passive, to take ownership of their education and really be involved," said Arturo Valdez, who took over as principal of the Highland Park campus two years ago.

The district's moves did not, however, resolve the controversy. Among the schools, Burbank also has the best three-year track record of improvement and two of those three years were with the prior staff — 80% of whom are gone.

Since 2009, the Burbank students at grade level or better in English rose from 29% to 54%; in math, from 18% to 49%.

Statewide, the persisting achievement gap correlates strongly to family income, but not entirely. In math, for example, black students with higher family income tested below white students whose families are at the poverty level. And Latino students whose families are not poor barely surpassed white students from low-income families.

"Income-based and racial gaps remain wide and intractable, even after a decade of school reforms aimed at narrowing these disparities," UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller said.

About 4.7 million California students took the tests near the close of the 2011-12 academic year.

*howard.blume@latimes.com*