Berkeley High’s long decline in math, English proficiency

Did you know Berkeley High students as a whole are less ready for college math and college English than other students in Alameda or California? This is one of the many alarming facts contained in the report prepared by Berkeley High in anticipation of a school visit by the WASC accrediting team on March 19-21. The full report is available to read here.

Berkeley High is undergoing its first accreditation review by Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) since 2005. The required self-study progress report presents a disappointing picture of Berkeley High academic achievement. Despite years of investment in high school reform, overall academic performance has declined at Berkeley High over the past decade.

With resources far surpassing most school districts, one might expect that Berkeley High School, serving 35% of district enrollment with over 3,400 students, would be an example of high academic achievement and a narrowing achievement gap. A strikingly different picture emerges from the WASC report  “Areas of Need” (p. 60-62):

•  Overall BHS proficiency in math dropped over the past ten years, while during that same period county and state proficiency rates rose according to California Standards Tests (CST).

• All racial subgroups have seen drops in proficiency in math compared with seven years ago. (CST)

•  Overall BHS proficiency in English declined from 2003 to 2011. (CST)

•  After the elimination of extra periods for science labs, chemistry test results showed an increase in students “below basic” and “far below basic,” from 35% in 2009, to 46% in 2011. (CST)

Additionally, the achievement gap has worsened particularly for African-American students:

•  Only 1% of BHS African-American students scored proficient in Algebra 1 test and 0% scored proficient in Algebra 2.  (CST)   (successful completion of Algebra by 9th grade is a 2020 Vision Indicator)

• Only 11% of BHS African-American 11th graders are proficient in English compared with 31% of African-American 11th graders statewide. (CST)

One of richest districts

Berkeley Unified School District is one of the richest school districts in the state. With more than $12,951 per student, compared with the average $8,717 per student, BUSD should be one of the top performing districts (Ed-Data website, Fiscal, Demographic and Performance Data on California’s K-12 Schools). Resources are not predictive of student achievement in Berkeley.

Unlike many communities, Berkeley has invested heavily in our schools for over 25 years. Local parcel taxes for school enrichment, class size reduction, and school maintenance boost average revenue per student by 48% above the statewide average, and doesn’t include additional resources from local charitable foundations, PTAs and the city of Berkeley’s education initiatives.

What’s happened at Berkeley High? Ten years ago Berkeley High was a comprehensive high school with a broad curriculum, a seven-period school day, double-period science and an honors math program. Following Oakland USD’s lead, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation money and subsequent federal support for small learning communities, Berkeley High was broken up into small schools and “redesigned”. The instructional day was reduced from seven to six periods; extra periods for science labs were eliminated; the honors math track reduced; “advisories” replaced instructional time in academic subjects. None of the reforms were data driven.

Dollars to consultants

The Gates Foundation dropped “small schools reform” years ago when an independent evaluation of the data revealed that such reforms had no positive impact on student achievement. On the other hand, in BUSD hundreds of thousands of dollars have been paid to consultants to provide professional development to district staff on small school redesign and equity initiatives.

Despite these resources, the achievement gap has worsened and ALL subgroups at Berkeley High show declines in academic achievement. Since 2010 Oakland USD has found small school reform to be economically unsustainable and is in the process of reconsolidating small schools into the previous comprehensive high schools.

The District needs to reverse the downward trend of student achievement and worsening achievement gap at Berkeley High.  Reforms have not increased student proficiency in math, English and science. The trends show things are getting worse, not better. Resources should be systematically realigned toward strengthening curriculum and instruction in core academic subjects.  BUSD has the resources; they need to be targeted effectively.

Need for educational leadership

BUSD needs educational leadership that is not afraid to address the current data trends and correct the weaknesses in the high school program. Unfortunately, the WASC action plan doesn’t adequately address the issues raised by the data. Despite accreditation, Berkeley High is graduating far too many students who are not proficient in math, science, reading comprehension and writing skills. Without these skills, Berkeley High students face increasingly limited career and educational options in a competitive global economy.

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Priscilla Myrick is a former member of the Berkeley HIgh School Site Council and former member of the Superintendent's Small Schools Steering Committee (2003). Myrick is a public education advocate and volunteer writing coach in the Berkeley and Oakland public schools.