Education Matters: High school testing, college acceptance, and middle school desperation


Looking at local schools’ test scores, released last week, reminds me of a classic Steve Martin routine on how to be a millionaire.

“First,” he says, “get a million dollars.”

How to get top-notch test scores is to first start with smart kids.

Then savvy school districts add foresight to see what’s coming, resources to provide extended and early teacher training, and a focus on parent involvement for buy-in of the road map.

Voila! You have what we see today: Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and San Dieguito at the top of the heap.

The new Smarter Balanced tests, designed to align with California’s Common Core State Standards, were administered last spring to public school students in third through eighth grades and 11th grade.

For the first time, the exams were all computer-based, an unfamiliar medium for achievement tests for many students. The tests were also adaptive, which means that follow-up questions were dependent upon how students answered each question.

The state has said the scores represent only a baseline for achievement, because Common Core standards are newly implemented this year and teacher training is still ongoing.

As a result, parents have been warned not to place too much significance on the results, to be prepared for lower than expected scores, and to not compare with previous state assessment scores.

To no one’s surprise, the results state- and county-wide, released Sept. 9, indicate lower mastery of subject matter than demonstrated in previous years.

For California students, 34 percent reached targets in math and 44 percent reached targets in English. Not too good.

For the San Dieguito Union High School District, results were well above state and county averages.

For overall achievement in mathematics, SDUHSD results are as follows:

7th grade/8th grade/11th grade/All

Std. exceeded/46%/45%/37%/43%

Std. met/25%/25%/27%/26%

Std. nearly met/18%/19%/19%/19%

Std. not met/10%/11%/18%/13%

Results for mathematics were sorted into three categories: Concepts & Procedures, Problem Solving & Modeling & Data Analysis, and Communicating Reasoning.

For overall achievement in English language arts and literacy, results are as follows:

7th grade/8th grade/11th grade/All

Std. exceeded/35%/33%/44%/37%

Std. met/42%/46%/32%/40%

Std. nearly met/16%/15%/15%/15%

Std. not met/7%/7%/9%/7%

Results for ELA and literacy were sorted into four categories: Reading (demonstrating understanding of literary and non-fictional texts), Writing (producing clear and purposeful writing), Listening (demonstrating effective communication skills), and Research/Inquiry (investigating, analyzing, and presenting information).

SDUHSD high school results (11th grade only) for Canyon Crest Academy, La Costa Canyon, San Dieguito High School Academy, and Torrey Pines are as follows:


No. tested in math/400/453/365/680

Met or exceeded std./76%/54%/58%/70%

No. tested in English/407/448/310/671

Met or exceeded std./85%/61%/75%/84%

Middle school results (both 7th and 8th grades) for Carmel Valley, Diegueno, Earl Warren and Oak Crest are as follows:


No. tested in math/1505/914/702/801

Met or exceeded std./80%/64%/69%/63%

No. tested in English /1500/906/699/802

Met or exceeded std./83%/73%/82%/70%

Information for all California schools and school districts — including Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe, Cardiff and Encinitas — can be found at: The Los Angeles Times also provided excellent data analysis and user-friendly charts.

Obstacles to California colleges

Anyone interested in knowing why their child did not get accepted to a UC or CSU college that they thought was a safety school will find this article from the Aug. 20, 2015, issue of the Hechinger Report informative and enlightening:

The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent, education-focused news organization, reviewed college acceptance rates for California residents that affirm what many of us have personally experienced.

Titled “Californians increasingly can’t get into state’s public colleges,” the article provides distressing evidence that the two higher-education school systems in California, once the envy of university systems worldwide, no longer live to serve the state’s citizens.

Money matters now more than the original mission to provide a world-class education for California’s kids.

According to the report:

“[B]etween 2007 and 2012, California trimmed $2 billion from the Cal State and UC budgets, essentially cutting per-student funding in half. At the same time, it gave more spots to out-of-state and international students who pay the full cost of their educations while turning down ... thousands of other qualified Californians.

“At UC campuses, California residents pay $14,000 in tuition and fees per year, compared to $38,000 for nonresidents. Californians pay $5,472 for the Cal State system, while nonresidents pay an additional $372 per semester unit or $248 per quarter unit, which works out to at least $8,928 extra per year for full-time out-of-state students.

“California once showed the world how a state could guarantee a college education for nearly every resident, but then it failed to provide the long-term funding to do it, said Martha Kanter, a former U.S. education undersecretary and California community college leader.

“Rather than a beacon, she said, it has become a warning: States without long-term plans for funding public colleges and universities run the risk of watching them deteriorate.

“‘California is a harbinger of what’s to come,’ said Kanter, now a visiting professor of higher education at New York University.”

Disappointed, rejected students who thought they were doing everything right get burned because they live in the right state but in the wrong decade. And that … is just wrong.

Middle school woes

I first heard UCLA psychologist Jaana Juvonen about 10 years ago, and was astounded by her research on the culture of middle schools and how the experience can negatively affect young teens.

Her series of lectures and our interview afterwards confirmed my suspicions: that taking students out of a comfortable, secure elementary school environment just when they were beginning to struggle with social pressures, body changes, self-esteem issues and emotional turmoil was a recipe for disaster.

A July 28, 2015, article in EdSource highlights the work researchers have done to show how the anxiety middle schoolers face can lead to what has been called “the middle school plunge.”

According to the article, “In some of the strongest evidence to date, a 2011 longitudinal study of 2,300 Los Angeles middle school students by UCLA psychologist Jaana Juvonen and others found a direct relationship over three years between being bullied and having lower grades.”

“The path to dropping out very often has its roots in the middle school,” said Maurice Elias of Rutgers University. “It’s safe to say we have underemphasized the potential impact of the middle school climate.”

From the article: “Fear of being publicly embarrassed or even physically hurt is widespread among students who are entering middle school, according to research studies.”

The story cites a 2015 survey that ranked top middle school concerns: getting undressed in front of others for physical education class, coping with peer pressure, dealing with bullying, and opening a combination lock.

(Since no lockers are available at local middle and high schools, students are spared this last trauma. But the trade-off is that they are instead saddled with debilitating backaches from lugging around heavy, overstuffed backpacks all day long.)

“Kids need to feel safe in school before they can learn,” said Juvonen, a longtime researcher on the culture of middle schools. “It’s as fundamental as recognizing that kids can’t come to school hungry and learn.”

Juvonen reiterated in the EdSource article what she said in her lectures and our interview several years ago: that a fundamental problem of middle school is its grade configuration, which she said “is not appropriate for young adolescents.”

According to the story, “Students who attend K-8 schools for 6th, 7th and 8th grades do better both academically and socially than their peers who attend middle schools, which typically serve 6th- through 8th-grade students, according to a comprehensive 2004 report by the Rand Corporation, which Juvonen authored.”

Rancho Santa Fe did it right, years ago, when the community decided to keep its kids through eighth grade, instead of sending them off to other communities for middle school just as puberty was about to wreak havoc on their sense of security and well-being.

After my exposure to Juvonen’s research, I suggested in a column that the two schools west of the freeway in the Del Mar Union School District, at the time struggling for more students, consider making one a K-4 or K-5, and the other a 5-8 or 6-8. Of course that went nowhere.

I still love the idea, but budget concerns, politics and adult considerations trump kids’ interests every time.

I lump this into the same heap of columns (you know where that pile sits now) that called for the Del Mar and Solana Beach school districts to unite, along with Cardiff and Encinitas, which should clearly become one district. (You can’t unite Rancho Santa Fe with any other community, so I didn’t even bother to go there.)

So much taxpayer money could be saved if the overhead of double the staff and superintendent salaries is eliminated.

As long as I digress, going one step further, imagine the money that could be saved if all five elementary school districts threw in the towel and all of us united to become the K-12 unified San Dieguito district.

Alas, it makes too much sense.

For the full story on the middle school conundrum, go to:

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at