East Bay schools rank among the worst in the state when it comes to improving academic performance of African American, Latino and low-income students, according to a new study.
The report by Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group, graded 146 large school districts in California based on four components. The list shows sobering results for several East Bay districts, including Mt. Diablo, Berkeley, and Antioch.
At the bottom, and with the only overall F grade, is the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
"Across the board, the grades are very low, suggesting not only that students are performing low in (West Contra Costa), but they're not improving either," said Carrie Hahnel, director of policy and research at Ed Trust and a co-author of the study, published in April.
The district earned D's in performance and improvement, and F's in the college-ready categories and gaps -- how Latino and African-American students' achievement compares to white student achievement, based on gaps in API scores.
"I would have liked to see at least one grade where things were moving in the right direction," Hahnel said of West Contra Costa.
The study looked at state data from 2006 to 2010, focusing on four areas: Performance, improvements, gaps, and college readiness. Districts were graded on the performance and improvement of students of color and low-income students in standardized tests; test score gaps between whites and Latinos
Wendell Greer, West Contra Costa's associate superintendent for K-12 operations, called the district's grade a "disappointment," adding that administrators are aware of issues with academic achievement, particularly among the groups examined in the study, and are working to address them. Greer said West Contra Costa has shown improvement recently, but recognized there is still much left to do.
"What we've seen is an upward trend over the last six to seven years. We feel that we're making strides, and going in a positive direction," he said. "Overall, we need to do better. We just want all of our kids to get an education that they can be proud of and their parents can be proud of."
Greer said the district's grade on college-readiness may not be accurate due to a data submission problem on the district's end -- something he's working to correct. Hahnel said she can't say how the new data might change the district's grade in that category without seeing it, and that her organization isn't able to change West Contra Costa's overall grade.
Still, other study categories were based on API scores and were not affected by the discrepancy. The API scores have increased in recent years, Greer said, with the district's overall score going from 660 in 2006 to 694 in 2010. Districts need a score of 875 to be "proficient."
Scores for African American and Latino students in West Contra Costa have also risen since 2006 but are still below 700, and lag significantly behind scores of white, Asian and Filipino students.
Greer said the district has worked to address performance problems in several ways recently. To improve overall API scores and the achievement gap, West Contra Costa has focused on small career academies; emphasized college-track courses earlier, such as algebra I in eighth-grade; implemented "culturally responsive" teaching practices; and honed in on three schools identified as "persistently low-achieving," implementing reforms like a longer school day and a re-evaluation of staff. Greer said administrators chart the progress of initiatives through hard data and feedback from teachers and administrators, refining their approach as needed.
College-readiness has also been emphasized in recent years through programs like the Ivy League Connection, and by giving every student in 9th, 10th and 11th grade the PSAT exam since 2006.
The district has also increased the number of students taking AP exams each year since 2003, and had 77 percent of last year's graduates say they planned to go on to a four- or two-year college or technical school.
Still, the number of students completing state university-required courses in the district hasn't grown by much, increasing from 33 percent of seniors in the 2007-08 school year to 37 percent in 2009-10.
Of the school districts in Contra Costa and Alameda counties ranked in the study, San Ramon Valley was highest with a C+. District spokesman Terry Koehne said local educators were proud of their relatively high rankings, but also noted the achievement gap that still exists.
"That's not just a local issue. It's state and nationwide," Koehne said.
He questioned the rankings, noting that no district got higher than a B. He also questioned some of the methodology, particularly in the improvement category, saying it's hard to do well in that area when students are already high achievers.
Hahnel is more concerned with San Ramon's achievement gap between whites and African Americans, in which the district earned a D.
"Overall, students of color are doing pretty well, but they're still far behind their white peers," she said.
Educators in the Mt. Diablo district, which earned a D in the study, said they are still reviewing the data, but were aware of their achievement gap and are working to correct it. Mildred Browne, assistant superintendent for pupil services and special education, said she's still not clear about the grading system and how districts with different demographics could get the same grade.
Still, the school board recently lowered the number of credits needed to graduate and dropped their math requirement from three to two years. The state also flagged the district for "disproportionate" numbers of black and Latino students identified for special education, suspensions and expulsions.
Browne said the district will apply for a grant to reduce the number of black students referred to special education. Mt. Diablo also recently formed an "Equity Advisory Team" and is focusing on its dropout rate.
"It's really troubling to see so many of our kids not be successful as far as being able to graduate," Browne said, "particularly our students of color."
The school board is seeking input in developing new initiatives, and hope to adopt a "vision" and multiyear equity plan after having "courageous conversations" about race and poverty, and reviewing plans in other districts.
The racial achievement gaps are enormous in Oakland and Berkeley. Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith says he aims to change those patterns by addressing the needs of children and families in poverty, as well as by improving instruction.
This fall, Oakland freshmen will face a new graduation requirement: The courses needed for state university admission. Smith also created a privately-funded department to improve the trajectory of African-American males, one of the lowest-performing groups in the district.
"The inequity in Oakland is everybody's problem," Smith said last week as he presented a five-year strategic plan to the school board.
Hahnel said she sees Oakland as a "glimmer of hope."
"Most districts had an area where they did do well. Maybe the performance was low but there is improvement in the district over time," she said. "Oakland is a good example. They're moving in the right direction."
Berkeley Superintendent Bill Huyett said his district is conscious of its racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. The district, which earned a D grade overall, recently decided to use $500,000 in parcel tax money to boost math and literacy skills of struggling students, and is aiming to expand before- and after-school offerings for high school students.
Huyett said it's important to highlight the progress, or lack of it, of historically low-achieving student groups. But, he said, "I object to the 'A-B-C-D-F' ratings. I don't think it's a valid rating system and I don't think it's particularly productive."
The Antioch School District scored a D overall, but is hoping to address the achievement gap by aligning all but a handful of high school courses to state university requirements, according to Stephanie Anello, the district's director of program improvement. Antioch is also identifying struggling students early to provide intervention and to accelerate learning, she said.
"It is sad to see that most districts throughout the state continue to struggle with unacceptably large achievement gaps," Anello said.
Hahnel said it's clear most districts in California have a lot of work ahead of them, and recognized it's become harder in a time of state budget cuts. Still, she pointed to several districts at the top of the list who are performing well, and hoped districts on the bottom will use the study as a jumping off point toward improvement.
"I just hope that this prompts people to ask more questions of their district, and cause people to peel back the layer of the onion a little bit -- not just look at one number that rates the district," she said. "If nothing else, we'd be delighted if this is a conversation starter."
The study can be viewed at http://bit.ly/mRZm5O.
Staff writers Katy Murphy, Theresa Harrington and Eric Louie contributed to this report.
"A Report Card on District Achievement: How Low-income, African-American, and Latino Students Fare in California School Districts" looked at four components in 146 large school districts:
Overall grades of East Bay school districts
San Ramon Valley: C+
Castro Valley: C-
San Lorenzo: C-
Livermore Valley Joint: C-
Alameda City: D+
New Haven: D+
Mt. Diablo: D
San Leandro: D
West Contra Costa: F