The intense push to improve math and science education in area schools appears to be paying off, state test scores released Friday show.
And yet the results of the STAR tests administered last spring starkly show how far off the goal of competency remains. Among Latino students in Santa Clara County, only 21 percent tested proficient or above in Algebra I, the same percentage as last year. The figure is 24 percent in San Mateo County, up one percentage point from 2011.
What's more, amid widespread efforts to narrow the achievement gap that separates white and Asian students on the one hand and African-American and Latino students on the other, the gap between white and Latino students in Algebra I proficiency
But compared to how students did before there was a push for all students to take algebra, the scores are a vast improvement. Eight years ago, only 8 percent of Latino students in Santa Clara County scored proficient or above in algebra; in San Mateo County, the figure was 14 percent.
Educators are encouraged by the trends. In Santa Clara County: 80 percent more Latino students took the Algebra I test this year than eight years ago, and proficiency rose from 14 percent to 24 percent.
How to interpret such mixed results for an area that has been the subject of intense focus by both educators and philanthropists in recent years?
The figures "are far too low," conceded Muhammed Chaudhry, whose Silicon Valley Education Foundation has led investment in math and science, offering preparatory courses in 18 school districts this summer. He emphasized the importance of the dramatic gains in both participation in tests and proficiency
"The budget cuts, the school year shrinking, all that has an impact. Despite all those issues, there's growth, and that's good sign."
Chaudhry argued that what's also important is the proportion of students taking algebra by eighth grade. That's a major goal of the foundation because as a "gateway" class, success in algebra puts students on a path to qualify for entry into California public universities. In 2012, 76 percent of eligible students in Santa Clara County had taken algebra by eighth grade.
Likewise, Gary Waddell, deputy superintendent of San Mateo County schools, focused on rising achievement amid the financial squeeze. "Our teachers continue to successfully raise the bar for their students and their improved performance is evidence of their commitment," he wrote in an email.
In San Mateo County, in grades two through 11 -- all those taking the state English language test -- 66 percent of students scored proficient or above, as did 60 percent of students in grades two through seven in math. In Santa Clara County, the figures were 68 percent in English and 73 percent in math.
In life science, tested in grades five, eight and 10, in San Mateo County 60 percent tested proficient or above, as did 69 percent in Santa Clara County.
Schools are dissecting STAR scores to see where they can improve teaching and how to tailor lessons for individual students. The STAR scores form the basis for the state's Academic Performance Index, a single number assigned to schools and districts. The API scores are scheduled to be released in October -- two months later than usual because of the compromise of some test data.
In some places, the scores were heartening. Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District has seen steady improvement in math and science, assistant superintendent Brigitte Sarraf said. For instance, among Latino students, proficiency has grown from 26 percent to 52 percent in 11th grade math, 43 percent to 55 percent in ninth grade geometry and 45 percent to 47 percent in 10th grade life science. While Latino scores in Algebra II -- "our greatest challenge," Sarraf said -- dropped from 51 percent last year to 42 percent, they still were up from 17 percent in 2007.
She credited the gains to teachers using data to inform their lessons, adding a Spanish-speaking counselor to each school, working with families and teachers planning creative lessons. In addition, she said, "we publicly acknowledge this is one of our weakest areas. It helps us be more reflective and focused on students and their progress."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.