OAKLAND — The test scores of Oakland's public school children improved this year, after flattening out in 2007, and a number of elementary schools made large gains. Still, the school system lags behind the statewide average, with only about one-third of its students scoring at "proficient" levels or better in math, reading and science.
And, although the school system saw modest gains across ethnic groups, especially among Latino students and English learners, a striking racial achievement gap remains.
The differences are stark: About 80 percent of Oakland's white students scored at "proficient" or "advanced" levels in reading, compared with 24 percent of African-American students and 22 percent of their Latino peers, according to a data analysis by the Oakland Unified School District's assessment office.
"One of the most pressing challenges facing the school district is how to rapidly boost African-American performance," said Troy Flint, the district's spokesman. "We have no hope of achieving our overall goals as a district unless we make substantial strides with this particular group of students."
About 36 percent of Oakland's students are African American; 36 percent are Latino; 15 percent are Asian and Pacific Islander and about 6 percent are white.
While the district's progress was modest, overall, some schools showed great improvement. More than 20 schools reported double-digit gains in the percentage of students who tested at the proficient or advanced levels in reading and math. All but two of them were elementary schools.
Sankofa Academy, a predominately African-American elementary school in North Oakland which nearly closed this year because of low enrollment, took the greatest leap forward. About 42 percent of its students reached proficiency in math, up from 12 percent the year before, when the school included middle school grades.
ACORN Woodland, an elementary school in East Oakland, doubled the percentage of its students deemed proficient in reading, from 21 percent to 44 percent. Its math scores jumped as well; 65 percent of its students tested proficient.
"It's fundamentally so affirming of what is possible for our kids," said Kimi Kean, ACORN Woodland's principal. "Our schools can do it, our kids can do it, and our district can do it."
Kean attributed some of the progress to the collaboration between teachers, both within her school and throughout the district, in a teacher-centered initiative called Professional Learning Communities.
She also credited a new reading program introduced by the school's literacy coach, and a pilot math program developed by Si Swun, a consultant from Long Beach. At the end of each 90-minute math lesson, students solve problems in small groups and share the material to the rest of the class.
The math program is expanding from eight to 20 Oakland schools this fall.
"I think Oakland has all of the knowledge and expertise it needs," Kean said. "I think it's about how we build on our successes more."
Russlynn Ali, executive director of the Oakland-based education advocacy group Education Trust-West, would agree.
"Some schools are making great gains," Ali said. "The real question is why all of them aren't."
Oakland's high schools, for example, were largely left out of the progress made by so many elementary schools, particularly in math. At some of the schools — such as BEST and EXCEL high schools at McClymonds; the East Oakland School of the Arts at Castlemont; Paul Robeson high school and Media Academy at Fremont, and the Youth Empowerment School — 2 percent or less of the students scored at the proficient level in math. And in more than half of the district's high schools, 85 percent or more of the students tested in the lowest two categories in math: "below basic" and "far below basic."
"That's not surprising, actually, given the lack of focus on high school performance in the last five to 10 years," Ali said. "High schools are lagging the most, not just in California but across the nation."
She added, "It's as if we feel that this is a lost cause."
OAKLAND 2007 2008
Reading 29% 32%
Math 30% 33%
ALAMEDA 2007 2008
Reading 59% 61%
Math 53% 53%
BERKELEY 2007 2008
Reading 50% 52%
Math 42% 47%
PIEDMONT 2007 2008
Reading 86% 86%
Math 73% 74%
CALIFORNIA 2007 2008
Reading 43% 46%
Math 41% 43%
Source: California Department of Education
These 21 Oakland schools made double-digit percentage point jumps in the number of children who tested at the "proficient" level or better in reading and/or math. Below are the number of points by which these schools improved between 2007 and 2008.
ACORN Woodland Elementary -- 19% in math, 23% in reading
Allendale Elementary -- 14% in math, 11% in reading
ASCEND Elementary -- 13% in math, 11% in reading
Bridges at Melrose -- 11% in math
Brookfield Village Elementary -- 10% in math
Franklin Elementary -- 16% in reading
Grass Valley Elementary -- 12% in math
Horace Mann Elementary -- 16% in math
Howard Elementary -- 16% in math
La Escuelita Elementary -- 11% in math
Manzanita Community Elementary -- 17% in math
Markham Elementary -- 24% in math, 16% in reading
New Highland Academy -- 12% in math
Peralta Elementary -- 14% in math, 14% in reading
Piedmont Avenue Elementary -- 13% in math
Reach Academy -- 14% in math, 13% in reading
Sankofa Academy -- 30% in math, 14% in reading
Sobrante Park Elementary -- 10% in reading
Whittier Elementary -- 11% in reading
Edna Brewer Middle School -- 15% in math, 10% in reading
Oakland Community Day High School -- 15% in reading
Source: Oakland Unified School District