Recent results showing poor test scores for students in North County school districts provoked obvious responses from education officials.
When our reporters contacted individual district officials about students in five North County districts scoring below the statewide average, the cumulative effect was a we-must-do-better response. There was nuance in some of the responses, but you get the point.
To us, the obvious is that kids in more affluent school districts do better on standardized, statewide testing, as do students in districts where the majority of students are already proficient in English.
The big takeaway from the test scores revelations is that North County school districts are struggling with a fundamental problem — giving an American education to young people whose first language is not English.
The situation is pronounced in the test results. The five lowest-performing student groups came from the Lompoc Unified, Santa Maria Joint Union, Santa Maria-Bonita, Guadalupe Union and Cuyama Joint Unified districts.
The test scores showed 49 percent of California public-school students are proficient in English, and 38 percent meet the statewide performance benchmarks in math. In Santa Barbara County, 44.2 percent are English-proficient, and 33.7 percent can handle the math basics.
Therein lies the problem for North County districts. For example, in the Santa Maria-Bonita district, 27.8 percent of students tested proficient in English, and only 21.2 percent in math. Those numbers are actually improvements over the 2016 scores.
The low numbers are easier to understand when you consider more than a third of students enrolled countywide are classified as English learners, and that share literally soars in North County school districts.
The scores also indicate that money matters. In Santa Maria schools, two-thirds of students from economically advantaged households met or exceeded state English standards, while just one-third of economically disadvantaged students made the grade. The balance — or imbalance, depending on your perspective — exists with regard to math proficiency scoring.
It sometimes seems that public school officials are circus jugglers trying to keep a collection of various-sized objects in the air at the same time. The current trend is to base just about every decision on standardized test scores, but you would have to be the dunce sitting in the back of the classroom not to understand that such testing pits the best students against the worst, and the best always have inherent advantages.
Lots of folks want public education to go back to a strict, ABC-style approach, teach the basics well, and let the scores fall where they will. We like that notion, but we also understand the school officials-as-jugglers idea, and that can be a very complicated matter.
It also seems to us that one commonsense approach would be to go back in time a bit, and take a fresh look at teaching English as being the No. 1 priority. Kids won’t excel in other academic disciplines without first having a firm grasp and understanding of the language they are being compelled to work with.
In many cases — especially here in North County — that will require more effort on the part of parents of children in homes in which English is not the primary means of communication. That suggests a greater outreach effort by school and local government officials to offer English-language instruction.
It serves no one’s interests to allow our children to pass through public schools without learning the basics, and language is certainly at the top of that must-learn list.
Juggling only works if the jugglers don’t drop one of the balls.