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A closer look reveals the truth about PUSD school test scores

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles
Published: March 6, 2011 at 8:06 PM (MST)
[This post has been edited to add information from the comments.] I'm sure you've heard the ongoing complains that the Pasadena Unified School District is "troubled" or "underperforming." Despite the fact that PUSD's state test scores have risen for the past several years, and are rising faster than the state average, critics point out that PUSD's average California API score, 758, still lags the state average of 767.

Let's take a look at what's really happening in the PUSD. Here are the district's latest average state test scores, broken down by racial, ethnic and economic group:

2010 API Growth Report
Student CategoryPUSD AverageState Average
White875838
Hispanic or Latino736715
African American712685
Socioeconomically Disadvantaged*724712

(*These are students on the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program)

That's right, PUSD students outscore the state average in each of these racial, ethnic and economic groups. So how is it that PUSD's average is lower than the state average?

It's because the mix of white, Latino, black and poor students in PUSD isn't the same as for the rest of the state. PUSD is disproportionally Latino, black and poor compared with school districts across the state, and those students on average score significantly below the state average. (I'll get to some of the reasons for that in a moment.) More than 70 percent of PUSD students are on the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, compared with 10 percent in South Pasadena, 2.5 percent in San Marino and just one percent in La Canada. (According to state API demographic reports, San Marino and La Canada each have fewer total students in the free and reduced-priced lunch program than Pasadena's percentage of students in the program.)

Allow me to illustrate Pasadena's child poverty problem in another way. According the demographic data from the California 2010 Growth API reports, for students in grades 2-12:

La Canada has 3,042 non-poor (i.e. not in the free lunch program) students in its district.

San Marino has 2,445 non-poor students in its district.

South Pasadena has 2,885 non-poor students in its district.

Pasadena Unified has 3,631 non-poor students in its district.

These districts seems pretty similar, huh? Well, there is a difference:

La Canada has 35 economically disadvantaged students along with its 3,042 non-poor students.

San Marino has 64 economically disadvantaged students along with its 2,445 non-poor students.

South Pasadena has 327 economically disadvantaged students along with its 2,885 non-poor students.

PUSD has 10,013 economically disadvantaged students along with its 3,631 non-poor students.

So even though PUSD's economically disadvantaged students are, on average, outperforming their fellow students across the state, the higher percentage of those students in PUSD means that district's average remains slightly below the state average.

The truth is that PUSD is doing a better job than most districts in the state in closing the achievement gap. (And its white and non-poor students continue to score far above state averages, as well.)

Should our Latino, black and poor students be scoring higher than they are? Absolutely. But PUSD deserves credit for bringing these students' test scores above their corresponding state averages. Unfortunately, classroom efforts only can go so far.

In study after study across the country, researchers have found that test scores correlate strongly with parent income and education level. It makes sense. What happens to kids whose parents aren't home after school because they are working two jobs to earn enough money to pay the rent? What happens to kids whose parents didn't take biology, algebra or history because they were denied education themselves, and therefore can't help their children with their homework? What happens to kids whose parents can't afford to send them to school with a good breakfast or even a full night's sleep in their own, warm bed?

They suffer academically, despite the best efforts of teachers between 8am and 3pm, 180-some days a year. A school - and its community - must make an extra effort to help provide these children the academic, social and nutritional support that they aren't getting at home in order to raise their performance at school. And that extra support costs money.

Our neighboring districts have parcel taxes that help them provide extra money to support classroom instruction and student assistance. Despite winning 54 percent of the vote last year, Pasadena couldn't muster the 67 percent we need in the state of California to pass one for PUSD. So our teachers make due with less money per student than neighboring districts, once you factor out the money PUSD gets from the federal government for all those free and reduced-price lunches. (That money cannot be redirected for classroom use - heck, it barely pays for edible meals.)

This isn't a failing district. It's a district that's being failed by its community, which isn't paying living wages to nearly enough of its families. It's being failed by a community that refuses to tax itself to help pay for the extra support that its poor children need. (Remember that in California, Pasadena's property taxes don't go to PUSD. They're divvied up and spent on districts around the state.) And PUSD is being failed by a community where too many voters embrace a false narrative of school district failure when in fact PUSD is exceeding state performance averages in category after category.

PUSD is succeeding. We don't need to overhaul the district yet again. But we need to change the attitudes of more people in the Pasadena community, to gather more support for finding new ways to provide PUSD's at-risk students the support that they need, and deserve. That's how we will build upon our existing success and finally close this achievement gap. And that's how we'll make PUSD a national model school district in which all students - regardless of family background - excel to their full potential.

Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com

© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.