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The Learning Curve: Wide Disparities in Test Scores Still Haunt San Diego Unified

A classroom at Thurgood Marshall Middle School. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

The inequality across San Diego Unified School District’s hundred-plus schools is striking, according to new test data released by the Department of Education last week.

At La Jolla Elementary School, 98 percent of students are proficient in language arts; 99 percent are proficient in math.

At Rodriguez Elementary School, 14 percent are proficient in language arts; 27 percent are proficient in math.

But, as experts have long noted, much of what we see when we look at test scores is poverty. Many people have taken to calling it the “opportunity gap.” Low-income students have less access to health care, pre-school, books and a non-stressful home life. That gap is responsible for much of the gap in test scores.

At La Jolly Elementary, just 11 percent of students live in poverty.

At Rodriguez, 98 percent of students do.

There are bright spots and schools that rise above the odds.

But these bright spots should also push us to ask another question: Why aren’t we seeing promising results at so many other schools with high percentages of poverty?

These results also tell us that test scores are more than just a mere reflection of poverty. Good things are happening at some schools, which help students overcome the opportunity gap. At other schools, those things aren’t happening.

San Diego Unified officials love to talk about using data as a flashlight, not a hammer. For some of these schools, plagued by poverty, where the needle has hardly moved, I wonder what the flashlight tells them.

The era of high-stakes testing is definitively over. But one question is still rumbling beneath the landscape of education policy in California: Are we going to talk about test scores at all?

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