Every year, when the California Department of Education (CDE) releases its California Standards Tests (CST) results the media echoes the numbers cited on school district and CDE press releases without making any effort to question the statistics given to them. Rather than simply rewording press releases the media needs to take the time to look more closely at the data.

The SFUSD press release “SF Students Show Academic Gains” on 8/31/2012 claimed: “African-American and Latino Students Show Double-Digit Growth in Proficiency over Five Years.” That would be amazing and wonderful, if it were true. The achievement gap is one of the most significant challenges facing any school district, including San Francisco’s, so these results are just what we’re hoping for. But as always, the devil is in the details. The media needs to ask: What else happened over the last 5 years that may have affected the scores? If they did, they would quickly see that these gains aren’t nearly as encouraging as they seem.

Though the California Standards Tests (CST) is what people usually mean when they mention the “STAR Test,” the STAR Program actually consists of four separate tests, including the California Modified Assessment, (CMA), which the CDE implemented the use of in April 2007, over five years ago. The four STAR Program tests are:

• The California Standards Test (CST) assesses students in the California State content standards in English language arts, mathematics, science, and history-social science.
• The California Modified Assessment, (CMA) is an alternate assessment for students with disabilities who have individualized education programs (IEPs).
• The California Alternate Performance Assessment, (CAPA), is an alternative performance in English-language arts, mathematics, and science for students with individualized education programs (IEPs) who have significant cognitive disabilities.
• The Standards-based Tests in Spanish (STS), tests students, in Spanish, in the California content standards for reading/language arts and mathematics.

Participation in CMA testing is a case-by-case decision made by a student’s special education Individualized Education Program (IEP) team using the state’s criteria as a guideline. The CMA is generally given to students receiving special education services who score below basic or far below basic on the CST in a previous year. With the introduction of the CMA, school districts have removed a substantial portion of the lowest scoring students from the CST results that are announced in August. As any student who is proficient in math can tell you -- if you do not include the lowest scores as part of your equation -- the percentage of students who score proficient and above appears much higher.

This point can be easily illustrated with a basic scenario in which 50% of students score proficient or above and 50% do not score proficient or above. If a decision is made to exclude 10% of the students who did not score proficient or above, all of a sudden that 50% proficient or above magically becomes 60% proficient or above. Unfortunately this is precisely what appears to have happened in San Francisco.

The SFUSD press release referenced above made another claim: “The five-year proficiency growth in English Language Arts for African-American students was 13 percentage points and 10 percentage points for Latinos.”

While those gains are just what we all hope to see, pushing on those numbers reveals a hard truth, as show in Figure 1 below. The rise in African American and Hispanic CST test scores over the last five years directly coincides with the introduction of the use of the CMA.

As shown in Figure 1 below, in 2007, over 90% of SFUSD African American Students took the CST; today, that number is 73%. In 2007, over 91% of SFUSD Hispanic Students took the CST; today, that number is 82%.

Figure 1: SFUSD CST Demographics 2007/2012

In a recent commentary for EdSource, Doug McRae, an adviser on the initial design of the STAR assessment system, wrote about how the overuse of the CMA test inflates API scores. This is what San Francisco is experiencing now.

The CMA is a much-needed alternative assessment for some students, but it is being overused by SFUSD. CDE guidelines suggest that no more than 2% of a school district’s students, and no more than 20% of students receiving special education services, should be taking the CMA. Currently 5.32% of all SFUSD students (grades 3-11) take the CMA instead of the CST, and 36.33% of all students receiving special education services took the CMA.

In an October 11, 2012 press release, SFUSD cites “notable growth” in API scores at schools such as Paul Revere K-8 and Everett Middle School. Over 90% of Paul Revere students (grade 3-8) receiving Special Education services (almost 9% of the school’s student population) now take the CMA, and over 63 % of Everett’s students receiving Special Education services (over 14% of the school’s student population) now take the CMA.

Even discounting the use of the CMA, there are still test score gains in achievement for African American and Hispanic students, and that is excellent news, but those gains are nowhere close to the double digit gains SFUSD claims in its yearly press releases which are enthusiastically echoed by the local press without any sort of verification or investigation. We need to take an honest look at what is happening with student achievement in SFUSD so that we can see what changes are necessary to be made to support our students.

The current reality of the test scores is not a “cause for celebration” as the district has stated. The CST Test results for African American, Latino, and Special Education students in SFUSD are abysmal as the tables below show (Note, all data in these tables are taken from the California Department of Education, Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Results and the California Department of Education, Dataquest source). This is the biggest civil rights crisis facing youth in San Francisco today.

Figure 2 SFUSD 2012 CST Results, percentage proficient or above:

The numbers in Figure 2 are alarming enough, but keep in mind they are even worse when you factor in all the students who are no longer even included in the count because they are taking the CMA.

Figure 3: Percentage of SFUSD Students Receiving Special Education Services Taking CMA, by ethnicity:

Beginning in the 2014/2015 school year, California is dropping use of its STAR testing system and switching to the Common Core State Standards test (CCSS) along with 45 other states. Critics claim that in switching to the Common Core Standards Test California is wasting billions to implement a test with weaker standards. Proponents of the CCSS argue that the advantage of having all states using the CCSS is that it will make it possible to compare student achievement nationally and that will make it worth the investment. Either way, it doesn’t really matter if the resulting data are flawed.

School districts claim to be using student achievement data to support changes they make in curriculum design, but when Board of Education members and superintendents base their decisions upon data that are faulty and skewed -- data that are molded to present a much more successful picture than really exists – that is a major concern. Perhaps the billions of dollars California spends on testing would be better spent on smaller class sizes and more teachers in the classrooms, especially when the test result data we are all supposed to learn so much from are never looked at or analyzed honestly anyway.

Katy Franklin is an SFUSD parent and Chair, SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education