East County schools saw a drop in scores on math and English standardized tests this year, but it is less dramatic than the declines statewide, and some districts saw improvement.

According to the Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, test scores released last week, Antioch Unified, Pittsburg Unified, and Oakley Union all saw the number of students proficient in language arts and math test scores decline. Byron Union, however, saw scores increase in both areas.

STAR test results assign students to one of five performance levels: advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic. The state's goal is for all students to score proficient or higher.

"As you would expect for a school system in transition, results varied from grade to grade, subject to subject, and school to school, but the big picture is one of remarkable resilience despite the challenges," state Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson said in a news release.

Pittsburg Superintendent Linda Rondeau agrees.

"One of the things you always keep in mind is that it's progress over time," she said.

Antioch and Pittsburg are the only area districts whose results were below the statewide percentages of students who are at least proficient in English and math.


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"We were surprised to learn of a slight decline in our proficiency rate this year after showing consecutive years of improvement," Antioch Unified School District Superintendent Don Gill wrote in an email. "Our ongoing student common assessment results for the 2012-2013 school year indicated an increased rate of achievement."

Far East County scores

Brentwood and Knightsen districts, meanwhile, saw minor increases in math scores, while Liberty Union High School District saw its language arts results improve.

On the other hand, Knightsen Elementary School District, which has one elementary school, saw a language arts score below the statewide one. Some 56 percent of students in the Knightsen Elementary District, met English proficiency goals, down from 62 percent who did so last year. Math scores were up a fraction of a percent, with 68 percent meeting proficiency goals, the same as last year.

The drop in English scores was not unexpected and the district is already taking steps to improve scores in the 2013-14 school year, said Theresa Estrada, Knightsen superintendent.

"We've already brought in an all new English curriculum," said Estrada, adding that the new curriculum will also align with the new Common Core Standards. Class size will also be smaller, she said.

In Oakley, the number of students who met or exceeded state standards in English and math was 56.9 percent and 54.2 percent, respectively, which represents a decline of 4.1 percentage points in English and 3.1 percentage points in math. Oakley school officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Brentwood Union School District not only fared significantly better overall, but the number of students attaining a proficient or advanced status in math increased to 70.3 percent, tying with Byron Union for the highest performances in that subject of all seven districts.

Although Brentwood Union had a slight setback in English -- the percentage of students proficient in the subject dropped by a fraction to 68.7 percent -- Brentwood youngsters still outperformed their peers in the six other districts.

Michael Bowen, director of curriculum and instruction, credits the results in part to last year's focus on developing students' vocabulary and ensuring that those in the primary grades understand fractions so they're ready for algebra in eighth grade.

Torlakson said California's minor slide in 2013 might be attributed to ongoing budget cuts and the state's shift to new Common Core Curriculum standards. In light of that, he said the STAR test scores still showed great improvement over those in 2003, when the tests were first administered. That's also what Liberty Union's Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Mary Vinciguerra emphasizes.

Among East County school districts, Liberty Union fared the worst in math with just 27 percent of students demonstrating proficiency in that subject, a drop of 2.5 percentage points from the previous year.

In fact, its performance landed it on the bottom rung in math among all districts in Contra Costa County. The district includes only high schools whereas most of the others also include the elementary schools.

But this year's scores are still an improvement, Vinciguerra said.

"It's low, but are we happy from where we were five years ago?" she asked rhetorically, noting that just 16.7 percent of the district's students were proficient in math in 2009.

Math scores had increased five consecutive years before these latest results, Vinciguerra added. "We are definitely moving up."

And Liberty Union's 63.5 percent proficiency rate in English is higher than last year's.

Antioch, Pittsburg results

The number of Antioch Unified students proficient in reading and writing fell from 49.2 percent to 47.3 percent, while those proficient in math fell from 40.4 percent to 38.9 percent.

"We are taking this setback as an opportunity to implement Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) aligned assessment tools, increase and improve our assessment cycle, and more deeply monitor our student results," said Essence J. Phillips, director of Educational Services, whose responsibility is to manage the student assessment programs for the District.

Belshaw Elementary and Park Middle were the only Antioch schools that saw increased proficiency in both categories, while nine of the district's other 21 schools saw increases in one category. Fremont, Jack London, Lone Tree, John Muir, Sutter and Turner elementaries showed math gains, while Deer Valley High, Dozier Libbey Medical High, Marsh Elementary boosted reading and writing proficiency.

"We are taking this opportunity to examine all areas of positive student achievement growth and areas where school sites may have declined," Gill wrote in an email.

Gill added that AUSD, "will continue to build upon what is working to increase student learning and make the necessary adjustments to support teachers and site administrators to sustain quality classroom instruction."

In Pittsburg, 43.4 percent of students scored as proficient in English, down from 44.3 percent a year ago, while 40 percent met math proficiency goals, down from 43.5 percent.

Rondeau said Pittsburg had "mixed results" in English, and she will be digging into that to see if it is an anomaly.

After a huge jump last year in language arts, Pittsburg's Foothill Elementary tallied a 44 percent proficiency rate this year. In math, 60 percent of students demonstrated proficiency, down from 64 percent.

However, scores jumped three points apiece at Heights Elementary, to 54 percent proficient in language arts and 76 percent proficient in math.

Pittsburg High had mixed results, with 40 percent of students scoring proficient in English, up from 35.1 percent. But there was a big decline in math: 12 percent met proficiency goals compared with 18 percent a year ago.

Rondeau said it's possible that the drop could be because more students are taking advanced math classes.

Security breaches

Release of this year's STAR testing results was also marked by the highest number of schools being involved in security breaches as widespread accounts were reported of students posting photos with test information onto social media sites.

Pittsburg High was one of four Bay Area schools to be flagged for a serious breach in which test answers were posted.

Rondeau said the breach was a test booklet's diagram of a muscle tendon posted on Instagram with the label "Kobe Bryant," showing the area the basketball star injured in May. This was posted while students were taking the English portion of the test, Rondeau said.

"The message (the student) relayed to us is that he was finished and bored and looked further into the test," she said. "There were just a handful that he Instagrammed, and they were not necessarily in the same courses or classes."

Pittsburg plans to be more vigilant about enforcing test protocols in the future, Rondeau said.

Other less significant breaches were found at three Antioch schools: Antioch High, Dallas Ranch and Black Diamond middle schools. Those breaches involved social media postings of the testing sites, such as photos from the classroom, but did not include legible test questions or answers.

The California Department of Education placed a cautionary flag on the publicly posted test results for all schools affected -- 252 statewide and 46 in the Bay Area.

Although the breaches did not affect the individual school test results, they could affect accountability reports to be released next month, which are based on the test scores, deputy state superintendent Deb Sigman said.

Staff writer Theresa Harrington contributed to this story. Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164, Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141 and Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189.

PERCENTAGE OF EAST BAY DISTRICT STUDENTS SCORING "PROFICIENT" OR BETTER IN 2013
English Math
CALIFORNIA 56.4 51.2
CONTRA COSTA COUNTY 62.3 55.7
Antioch 47.3 38.9
Brentwood 68.7 70.3
Byron 65.6 70.3
Knightsen 56.1 68.2
Liberty 63.5 27.0
Oakley 56.9 54.2
Pittsburg 43.4 40.0
Source: California Department of Education, summary-level data
Detailed results, including school scores, are available at www.cde.ca.gov.