Berkeley Unified School District study finds improved literacy, declining math skills

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A report published by the Berkeley Unified School District on Wednesday found that students are excelling in language skills and literacy but declining in math scores — which some attribute to a curriculum change.

The Berkeley school district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan — a report made by all California school districts at the end of each school year — provided new data on the math level of Berkeley eighth graders and language skills of local third graders.

“I think we always had some good news in literacy,” said Karen Hemphill, school board director for the school district. “(But) I think our math program is fairly new and we have a ways to go for professional development for our teachers and for parents to be able to assist our students.”

According to Berkeley PTA Council Treasurer Mimi Pulich, the declining math scores were the result of the school district’s recent adoption of the Common Core curriculum, to which teachers were still adjusting.

“The impact of the curriculum change is felt across the board so some students who were previously proficient are now challenged,” Pulich said in an email. “More kids are struggling with math because of the new curriculum; but, more significantly, those who’ve always struggled in math are likely to be struggling even more.”

The literacy assessment showed that 78 percent of students are reading at or above standard skill level, a 7 percent increase from last year. The literacy rate of Black or African-American students improved 15 percent, while Hispanic or Latino students showed a 9 percent increase.

The eighth grade math assessment showed that 49 percent of students are at or above the standard level in math, a 5 percent decrease from 2015 to 2016.

“As a parent and PTA leader, these test results do not alarm me,” said Christine Staples, the district PTA Council president, in an email. “Not only has the curriculum changed dramatically, the assessments are also brand new.”

Staples also attributes the assessment results to the change in the style of testing from forms using fill-in-the-blank answers to online forms. Additionally, Staples said the two years of data examined in the report make her question whether it is the same students’ results from one year to the next.

Pulich said she would like to see the district implement a math support model — a program similar to one the Berkeley school district implemented in its English departments — that appoints a coach to work not only to train teachers but also to work directly with students.

Staples said the school district should look closely at the report’s findings and adjust as needed, especially to see which students require more assistance.

“We have to learn from the data and use that to refocus our efforts,” Hemphill said.

Contact Sareen Habeshian at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sareeenn