EDUCATION: MBUSD test scores remain in upper echelon

MBUSD’s performance in English Language Arts relative to comparable school districts.  Courtesy MBUSD 

by Mark McDermott 

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s performance in standardized tests remained drastically higher than most districts in California and Los Angeles County, according to comparative data released by the California Department of Education last month. But MBUSD lost some ground to the other comparable, top school districts. 

At its November 1 meeting, the MBUSD Board of Education received a second and final staff report on results from the 2022-23 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress assessments. The overall message was that MBUSD students performed exceptionally well. In English Language Arts (ELA), 79.52 percent of Manhattan Unified students met or exceeded state standards compared to 46.6 percent of students in the state and 47.18 in LA County. In math, 73.99 percent of MBUSD students met or exceeded standards, compared to 34.62 percent in the state and 34.75 in the county. 

The only dimming of the luster on those numbers was that they’d declined from pre-pandemic levels while other top school districts did not. In ELA, MBUSD has dropped nearly 5 percentage points since scoring 84.84 percent 2018-19, while top-ranked San Marino has increased from 86.23 to 88.63 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards. Palos Verdes increased from 76.33 percent to 81.83 percent in that same timeframe, and while South Pasadena dropped from 84.2 to 81.5 percent, MBUSD thereby fell from second overall to fourth. 

“There’s a difference between one and two percent between Manhattan Beach and those two school districts. So we are right there,” said Irene Gonzalez-Castillo, the assistant superintendent charged with educational services within MBUSD. “Our goal is —  we need to be back where we were.” 

The same four schools, with San Marino again ranked highest, were also the top four, and MBUSD also dropped from second to fourth. Jonathan Erickson, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, noted that elementary students especially excelled, with 85 to 89 percent meeting or exceeding state standards. One problem area was a steep drop in performance at the 8th grade level, which dropped from 74 percent to 61 percent. Administrators believe this precipitous decline was due to inconsistent substitute teaching. Erickson said the issue at the high school level, which was at 59 percent, could be the timing of the tests. Juniors are the only high schoolers to take the tests, and they take them right after taking Advanced Placement exams in the spring. 

“We researched the few districts that are performing stronger than us and with the exception of one, their high schools do administer the test earlier,” Erickson said. “Even some of the schools that don’t perform as us have seen gains when they made the shift [to testing earlier in the school year]. The understanding seems to be…after AP tests so late in the year, it’s a lot harder to motivate.” 

Erickson said that department chairs and administrators are looking to find an earlier testing date. Gonzalez-Castillo said that the district is also looking at other metrics the state offers to help drill down on the data as well as discussing further ways to use the data the improve student performance. 

School board member Bruce Greenberg expressed both pride and concern in the results. 

“First of all, we should be proud of the fact that we are a high-performing district,” Greenberg said. “That being said, some of my other takeaways when I look at this summary level and comparative data, are the trend lines for both ELA and math are concerning. We dropped a couple of percent from 2122 to 20 to 23…I realize we had a pandemic disruption in there, as well, but the trend line is concerning.” 

Greenberg wondered if it would be possible to find out what San Marino, ranked at the top of both ELA and math, and what other top districts across the state are doing that might be different than what MBUSD is doing. 

“It just screams ‘Opportunity’ to me,” he said. 

Greenberg also said trying to get back to number two is aiming too low.  “It seems to me that’s what we should be striving for —  not getting back to a number two position, but what do we need to do to achieve that number one position?” he said. 

San Marino is a very different district, with only 800 students, but Gonzalez-Castillo said staff would indeed reach out and see if anything could be learned about how it reaches it’s higher performance. 

“I think it’s a good point,” she said. “I think that’s an important piece for us because we do collaborate a lot with our local districts, but I think it’s also beneficial to go out to San Marino and see what we can learn from them.” 

Board president Cathey Graves said that striving for improvements is good but also emphasized the great progress made within some grade levels and the overall feedback from the tests as painting an overwhelmingly positive picture. 

“We are high high-performing district, and I don’t want to take away that achievement,” Graves said. ER 


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