“Educators laud test success” – Give me a break!!!!

In a society based on marketing we no longer discuss problems honestly.

The latest California state English and math test scores have been released and today’s (9/27/2017) San Mateo Daily Journal headlines the results with the title “Educators laud test success.”

The scores in our local San Mateo-Foster City School District (which covers grades K-8) showed that 59% of students in English and 54% of students in math scored at or above grade level.  The local San Mateo Union High School District scores were 77% in English and 55% in math.  State-wide the percent of students at or above grade level was 48% in English and 37% in math.

When basically only one out of two students locally is performing at or above grade level (except in high school English at 77%), it is the height of cynicism to call this “test success,” but every year articles like this appear in multiple news sources around this time.  Statewide the numbers in math say that almost 2 out of 3 students are below grade level!

Interpreting test scores is fraught with difficulties, but public schools do themselves absolutely no favor by ladling out this kind of happy talk to the public.  It undermines their credibility, causing more harm than good.  People read these articles now, and, later, when local libertarians write opposition pieces to public school ballot measures, this kind of incredulous news is inevitably trotted out again in their writings as “proof” that public schools are not doing their jobs.

The raw data can be searched at the state test results website.  Entire anonymized data sets can be downloaded from this link.  There is also a link to a new science exam, but only a few results have apparently been made public so far .

Unfortunately I did not find a comprehensive report analyzing the results in terms of demographic factors.  Releasing test results to the public without an analysis of possible explanations for the scores does more harm than good in my opinion.  Parents in well-to-do neighborhoods read news reports like in today’s Daily Journal and think about moving their kids to private schools.  Libertarians read these articles and immediately conclude that teachers are not doing their jobs and that tax dollars are being wasted.  Ballot measures that are needed to fund the schools end up in defeat because of this kind of “marketing BS.”

I would like to invite local school administrators to address these issues seriously in writing and would be more than happy to post their responses here.

We keep changing tests and curricula in California, so it is very hard to measure long-term trends.  This gives rise to a variety of questions that people of various political persuasions have posed:

Have students always done so poorly?  Have we simply set our academic expectations too high for “frail human beings?”

Today we try to get everybody ready for college.  Is this a realistic goal or should we put greater focus on vocational education?

Are we being overwhelmed locally by students from impoverished backgrounds or from cultures that do not value education?  Is this pulling test scores down?

Are teachers simply being lazy and not doing their jobs?!??  Is this due to bad morale caused by low pay or do too many teachers coast simply because union protections make it very difficult to fire non-performing teachers?

Or are teachers actually working very hard and are being pilloried for not solving social problems that are completely out of their control???

Are there problems with the testing methodology itself?  Do students even try to do well on tests that do not impact their GPAs??  Perhaps these scores are completely distorted and meaningless??

The state pays a lot of money for these tests.  If we don’t make a decent and honest attempt to analyze the results, then at least one thing is crystal clear: this money has been completely wasted.

Please post your comments following this article below.  You must scroll all the way down to the the “Leave a Reply” box to reply to the article directly or click the Reply link following a comment to respond to a particular comment.

The WordPress software that runs this site requires that you enter an email address to comment, but your address is not checked for validity nor displayed, and I do not collect or use this information.  Also, you will not receive emailed comments on the article from other people unless you check a box in the form to specifically request this.

Thanks as always for your participation!

NOTE ADDED 9/28/17:

During a meeting with SMUHSD Superintendent Skelly this morning he called my attention to the following academic achievement presentation which will be presented this evening at the SMUHSD Board meeting:


Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

14 thoughts on ““Educators laud test success” – Give me a break!!!!”

  1. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I believe the author has made some math errors. I checked the data on the website and SMFC is 62% English and 56% Math. The article stated 59%/54%. I spot checked Burlingame (81%/76%) and Belmont (79%/74%) results and they were incorrect as well. San Mateo County total was correctly reported.

    It is interesting to observe the results comparing these 3 neighboring school districts. For example, you would expect children of college graduates or children of high school graduates to have similar results across school districts. They are similar in some respects, but SMFC performs lowest in each similar category compared to Belmont or Burlingame.


    1. William,

      Thanks for taking the time to check the data published in the Daily Journal. I took the article at face value unfortunately.

      However, the revised scores still are not great, particularly in math, and I (and I assume many others) am tired of seeing articles every year quoting congratulatory comments from school officials about a rise of a percentage point or two while ignoring the meat of the issue.

      I sent the following letter to both of our superintendents inviting a reply and have also submitted a letter to the editor of the Daily Journal.


      Dear Drs. Rosas and Skelly:

      I think the Daily Journal gave the school districts a “left-handed compliment” with their lead article today as I explain in my blog post below. Articles like theirs are published every year when test scores are released, and leave the public incredulous. I think this harms public schools and makes passage of bond measures more difficult.

      Is there anyone on your staff who can provide a more detailed and honest analysis of the test scores in answer to the questions that I raise in the article below? When close to 1 out of 2 students in both districts do not test at or above grade level in math that is clearly not a cause for celebration unlike the headline in the article.

      Thanks in advance.


      Dr. David Kristofferson


    2. I confirmed William’s numbers above and also found that the numbers for the San Mateo Union High School District were incorrect in the SMDJ article (assuming the source used by the Daily Journal was the same as the data on the CA website). One has to add the top two categories to obtain the scores for at or above grade level. The website gives scores of 80% and 57% at or above grade level for English and Math respectively versus the Daily Journal’s scores of 77/55 for the district.


    3. I reported the numerical discrepancies to the Daily Journal, and they claim to have double-checked the numbers and maintain that their report is correct. We are trying to determine the source of the discrepancy. I suspect they used a different source than the website search, but am waiting to hear back from the article’s author.


    4. I received a reply from the Daily Journal, have found the source of the discrepancy, and my information was incorrect. I found the state test score results site through a Google search, and it appears that the link to the 2017 results had not been indexed yet. The results that I linked to were from 2016, but the year was not displayed on the state web page unfortunately. The 2017 page has a drop-down menu control that allows one to see previous years as well as the 2017 results.

      My apologies for any confusion. I have fixed the links in the article to go to the latest 2017 test scores. I also checked the scores for SMFCSD and SMUHSD. The Daily Journal’s published scores appear to have truncated any decimal remainder, but otherwise agree with the website data for these districts. I also updated the link above for the comparison of SMFCSD results with Burlingame and Belmont.

      The 2017 scores are lower than the 2016 scores in several cases, and the main issue that close to half of students in our local schools are not testing at grade level in math is unaffected by this change however.

      I met with SMUHSD Superintendent Skelly this morning and had an extensive discussion which I do not have time to write up in detail right now. During our discussion Dr. Skelly made the point that I mentioned in my article above: this particular test is high stakes for school districts but has no direct impact on the students, many of whom are also studying for the SAT and ACT at the same time. Consequently, there is a significant question about how hard they try on this test and what the numerical scores really mean.

      These are the kinds of issues that need to be discussed in articles about these test scores.


  2. Hi David:

    Happy to discuss this data and other data. Interestingly, there will be a board report on this Thursday night at around 7:30 p.m. You are welcome to come. The data will be reviewed rather quickly. Our conversation might be more helpful if we sat down and met. Please give me a call at the district office and we can find a convenient time.

    Kevin Skelly


    1. Dear Dr. Skelly,

      I would be delighted to meet about this topic, and will call your office to schedule a time. This is the better option for me as I tutor during evening hours and can usually not attend Board meetings unless I cancel my appointments.


      David Kristofferson


  3. I received a private reply from a reader and am trying to get them to post their comments publicly. However, they dug up data which I had fervently hoped the school districts themselves would provide.

    The number of economically disadvantaged students in the SMFCSD appears to be ***an entire order of magnitude higher than in the neighboring Belmont and Burlingame school districts***.

    I always suspected the SMFCSD served a higher population of this type but had absolutely no idea of the scale of the issue. I even raised this issue during the June Board budget meeting that I attended, but none of the board members nor the administration pointed out the size of the difference which makes me wonder if anyone has ever even looked at it carefully!!

    I am awaiting a response from my reader to post their entire data set, but I took the time to look up the math test results at the state website in the three elementary districts that were compared above.

    The total enrollment that fell into the economically disadvantaged category is 218 students in Belmont-RS of which 213 students were tested in math, 271 enrolled versus 267 tested in Burlingame and

    *** 2,472 enrolled versus 2,447 tested in SMFCSD!!! ***

    The state website allows one to break out data by a variety of subsets ranging from economics, to ethnicity, to parental education levels.

    When these test scores are released each year, the districts need to take the time to explain the results to the public by showing this kind of numerical data instead of mouthing platitudes if they wish to retain support in light of the continuing percentages of children testing below grade level!

    It should not be the job of private citizens to have to defend them by sorting through a morass of data in a state database.


    1. I was wondering if you have the data to express these numbers as percentages per district (I am sorry I don’t have the time to look it up). I believe the two comparison districts also have fewer elementary schools and students (although definitely not 10X fewer), so percentages would be easier to compare. Thanks for bringing this to light!


      1. Kim,

        The data on the state website is given by percentage and in this regards it looks like the other two districts do a “better” job than SMFCSD. The percentage of economically disadvantaged children testing at or above grade level in math is 35.21% for Belmont-RS, 43.98% for Burlingame, and 22.11% for SMFCSD.

        However, this is a simplistic comparison. As the private respondent noted, schools tend to be economically segregated by neighborhood, and when numbers scale up, new problems emerge from the scale that also affect the results. Having a few poor students in a class with many well-off students may not be a significant issue, but teaching an entire class of such students can lead to entirely different challenges.

        Also the definition of “economically disadvantaged” is not given on the test score website. I assume that there is a cutoff income level, but we don’t know the overall income range that this covers. Therefore without detailed data, the percentages may hide the fact that the “economically disadvantaged” in Belmont and Burlingame might still be better off than the “similar” group in SMFCSD.


  4. Hi David,

    Actually, I was wondering what percentage of SMFCSD students are economically disadvantaged, and how that compares to the percentages in the other districts. While I agree with your conclusions, it seems a bit misguided to compare 200 disadvantaged students in one district with 2000 disadvantaged students in another district when the districts have different total numbers of students — for exactly the reasons you detail above. If SMFCSD had a million total students (with 2000 disadvantaged), and Burlingame had 300 total students (with 200 disadvantaged), you would expect a much different impact than if SMFCSD had 3000 total students (with 2000 disadvantaged) and Burlingame had 5000 total students (with 200 disadvantaged).
    Maybe it is just the former statistics teacher in me, but I feel the better comparison would be the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in each district. Yes, it is more striking to point out the difference between 2000 and 200, but it should really be more like a difference between 40% and 15% (numbers I made up, because I don’t know the total numbers of children in each district).
    In the end, the data would still show support for your point: that San Mateo has more economically disadvantaged students than other districts, and that this could explain the difference in test results. I just feel that your point would be stronger (if not quite as dramatic) if you were to compare percentages rather than straight numbers.


    1. Kim,

      The District has easy access to this information (I have to dig for each number) and that is my main point. The school district needs to provide this information along with the test scores if they want to maintain public support when the scores do not look strong. I hope to have this discussion soon with Superintendant Rosas.


  5. I have received permission to publish the comment below anonymously that was received on 9/29. My response to the writer follows their comment. The writer also called the following data sources to my attention. One might assume, although it is not completely certain, that the “Free and Reduced Price Meals” data tallies closely with the “Economically Disadvantaged” category on the state test scores website.


    Again, it is my hope that the districts will provide a report about the test scores as soon as they have time to do so. It is not reasonable to expect private citizens to plow through these sources on their own, and then ask them for their tax dollars.

    Anonymous on 9/29/17:

    I just have a comment about your recent article concerning the newly-released test scores. One of the commenters compares Belmont-Redwood Shores, Burlingame, and SMFC. I want to point out that in B-RS of the 3rd-8th grade students tested, between 207 and 213 students classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged took the test. Roughly 48% of that subgroup of students scored at or above grade level in ELA and 40% in math. In Burlingame, between 262-266 students took the test. Roughly 49% of that subgroup scored at or above grade level in ELA and 44% in math. In SMFC between 2,397-2446 students classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged took the test. 28% scored at or above grade level in ELA and 23% at or above grade level in math. Those scores indicate that SMFC needs to better serve socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

    Comparing SMFC to BRS and Burlingame is not a “fair” comparison even though those districts are “neighbors”. I don’t know if the person who commented realizes the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged children that the SMFCSD serves. Often that population of students is concentrated at certain school sites. What those children and their communities need are more resources and models of success to help mitigate the real and often complicated effects of challenging life circumstances.

    Also, you ask the question “Are we being overwhelmed locally by students from impoverished backgrounds or from cultures that do not value education? Is this pulling test scores down?” I don’t know any parents that do not value education, regardless of culture. There are many families struggling to get by in high-priced Bay Area. Maybe energy would be better spent on mobilizing resources for “students from impoverished backgrounds” so as to create far-reaching, comprehensive systemic supports to help improve their life circumstances.

    Children have NO CONTROL over their life circumstances and deserve a safe, engaging, enriching, and empowering education so as to IMPROVE their lives despite their life circumstances. This community owes it to its children. We must fight harder to ensure that every child may realize his or her potential by providing the best public education possible.

    David Kristofferson on 9/30/17:

    The data that you provide in your comment is precisely what I would want the district to say to the public, so thank you very much!! Instead year-in and year-out we keep seeing happy talk articles like the comments in the Daily Journal which leaves the public frustrated.

    The questions that I pose in my article are not necessarily all ones that I believe are true, but are intended to reflect the range of opinions that I hear from people on these issues. Please don’t forget that rednecks vote too! And they may also write the opposition pieces to school ballot issues that cast doubt on public education… Jack Hickey did the district a major disfavor with his opposition pieces and may have cast enough doubt to torpedo Measure Y. However, SMFCSD has done enough on its own in math education to tick off many parents.

    I will be meeting soon with Superintendent Rosas to get more clarity on these issues. I really hope that you will post your comment to my blog article publicly today.


    Dave Kristofferson


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