Chart by Andra Cernavskis

The principals of the Mission District’s elementary schools are ready to say goodbye to the state’s 15-year-old Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests for language arts and math and hello to the Common Core national tests.

The national tests are expected to better evaluate critical thinking skills by asking questions that require writing and thereby more explanation than a multiple choice test. The tests will be administered on computers – a change that some principals said could be a handicap for low-income families without computers at home.

Nevertheless, all agreed that the move to the national test is a good one.

“It’s about time we came to a national agreement about what it means to learn instead of having just state standards,” said Catalina Rico, principal at Cesar Chavez Elementary. “It’s a good thing so we can have a national conversation.”

Marshall Elementary principal, Peter Avila, added, “I’m fine with getting rid of the STAR tests.”

Aligning California with 45 other states, Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill lawmakers approved earlier this month to stop STAR testing and move to the national test. Despite federal challenges to Assembly Bill 484, its passage effectively cancels the STAR tests for this academic year to give schools a year to prepare the national test that will begin in the 2014-2015 school year.

In the last year of STAR testing, the Mission’s five elementary schools had mixed results with Marshall Elementary improving the most in language arts and Cesar Chavez improving the most in math. Conversely, Bryant’s scores fell the most drastically in language arts, and Marshall dropped the most in math.

For grades 2 to 11, the entire San Francisco Unified School District saw a slight decline in students performing at or above proficiency in language arts. This year, 60.3 percent of students were deemed proficient. In 2012, the number was 60.5 percent. For grades 2 to 7, proficiency in math increased, with 69.2 percent of students reaching proficiency in 2013, just slightly higher than the 67.6 percent proficiency the district saw the year before.

Mission elementary schools still fall behind district-wide results.

Young students in the Mission District, many of whom are not native English speakers, generally perform better on the math portion of the STAR tests than they do in language arts. In the last year of STAR testing, two of the five schools improved in language arts. Three out of five schools improved in math.

Marshall saw a slight decline in its math scores from 56.7 percent to 51.6 percent of its students scoring as proficient or better in 2013, but the language arts scores rose from 39.7 percent of its students scoring as proficient or better in 2012 to 47.2 percent in 2013.

“We haven’t really focused on math,” said Avila, adding that the school’s math scores have always been strong.

Buena Vista Horace Mann students also perform significantly better in math.

“Math is a more transferable subject than English reading,” Buena Vista Horace Mann Principal Jennifer Steiner said. Students at her school are taught mostly in Spanish from kindergarten to second grade.

“The concepts and skills [for math] are the same in English,” she continued.

In language arts, 42.9 percent of Buena Vista Horace Mann’s students were proficient or better, a slight decline from 43.5 percent 2012. In math, 50.9 percent of its students were proficient or better this year, compared to 48.6 percent last year.

At Bryant Elementary, 43.6 percent of its students were proficient in math, a drop from 46.4 percent in 2012. The school’s language arts scores dropped, with 28.7 percent proficient compared to 40.4 percent the previous year. Christina Velasco, principal at Bryant, attributed the changes to the preparations her school has been making to prepare for the Common Core.

“One of our biggest focuses was on having kids reading two grade levels up,” she said, adding that she looks forward to the switch to the Common Core because its assessment is more comprehensive.

Students will be required to explain their math answers on the Common Core, as opposed to just filling in a multiple-choice bubble. This means a student is assessed on how well they understand the concepts, which many believe is something that the STAR tests lack.

Rico believes the Common Core will be challenging for English as a Second Language learners because it demands students to perform at a higher level of writing. “We have been anticipating that and have infused more writing into the curriculum,” he said.

Cesar Chavez was one of the three elementary schools in the Mission to improve its math scores, moving from 36 percent with proficiency in 2012 to 43.4 percent with proficiency in 2013, while dropping from 28.1 percent with proficiency in language arts scores to 25.5 percent with proficiency in 2013.

For his part, Avila at Marshall Elementary is most concerned about the use of computers the Common Core necessitates. Between 70 and 80 percent of his students receive free or reduced lunch, which means that many of his students do not have access to computers at home and feel uncomfortable using them.

“I’m concerned this testing will exacerbate the achievement gap for students who don’t have computers at home,” he said.

Marshall has 22 computers, and each student spends one hour a week in the computer lab. Avila wants to integrate more technology into the curriculum, but does not know how the school will achieve this goal.

Steiner is also concerned about the technology aspect of the new test.

“We will need better access to wireless, more computers and more students savvy on the computers so that we aren’t testing if they can work a mouse, but really if they can comprehend literature at a deep level or explain their thinking about a math equation,” she said.

Velasco said that she has invested heavily in technology for Bryant, a school that has 256 students from kindergarten to 5th grade, with money the school received from the federal School Improvement Grant(SIG) funds and Mission Promise Neighborhood funding. With SIG funds, she bought 90 iPads for the school and is in the process of converting the 26 computers in the student computer lab to new iMacs.

“We are working hard to make kids proficient with computers,” she said, citing that her students are quizzed on computers and have weekly sessions in the computer labs.

“I’ve made sure to invest well and make sure technology is part of [the students’ education],” Velasco said.

Principals insist that even though their schools are adapting to the new test, they will not be preoccupied with scores.

“We are not about teaching to the test. We are about teaching to get the best scholars,” Velasco said.

“I’m focusing on the learning, not the test,” Rico echoed. “This test will [better] measure learning. We don’t put the test before the learning.”

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Andra Cernavskis is a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. She is Canadian by birth but grew up in New Jersey and then San Francisco's Miraloma neighborhood. She has also spent time in Toronto, Buffalo, and Montreal. The Mission is one of her favorite neighborhoods, and she is thrilled to be back reporting in San Francisco.

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