California public school students made overall gains in every category of the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program, but an achievement gap in which black and Hispanic students lag behind other students persists, the state’s top education official said today.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced today that 50 percent of California students in grades 2 through 11 tested proficient or higher in English-language arts.

O’Connell described this result as “a major milestone,” saying only 46 percent of students met that mark in the 2008 STAR results.

This year’s test results, released this morning, also showed that 46 percent of students scored proficient or higher in math, he said – a 3 percent jump from last year. Nearly 4.8 million students took the state exams this spring.

Students also made significant overall gains in science, history and social sciences, he said. The state goal, he said, is to have 100 percent of California students score proficient or advanced in every category of the STAR exams.

Students in the Oakland Unified School District made 4 percent proficiency gains in both categories. Two-thirds of students are proficient or better in English, and 59 percent meet state goals for math. Both black and Hispanic students’ improvement rates were higher than the district average.

The San Francisco Unified School District saw an overall 3.5 percent jump in students who test proficient or higher in English and language arts, and a 2.8 percent increase in math scores at those levels. Now 54 percent of the district’s students meet state goals for English and 62 percent do so for math, according to Superintendent Carlos Garcia. Administrators and educators in San Francisco cheered the district’s results, as well greater increases in scores among black and Hispanic students, at a news conference today.

Garcia said black students’ overall proficiency gains, 4 percent in language and 4.3 percent in math, is the highest such increase he’s aware of in the district’s history. While distinct gaps remain, especially among black students, Garcia said this year’s numbers are an encouraging indication that making “social justice” a priority in the district can improve test scores.

“We’ve learned a lot about what it is we have to do to close that gap,” he said at a news conference today.

Garcia and other administrators say the gains come in part from letting individual schools develop their own strategic plans, rather than dispensing detailed instructions from the district level. Adding technology whenever funding allows also helps keep students engaged, according to administrators from three city schools who spoke about their successes.

Garcia said the district also plans to have especially successful schools share their strategies with other city schools with similar demographics. There is no need to bring in “outside experts” to improve scores, he said.

“We obviously have the expertise in house,” he said. “It’s just grossly underutilized.”

On a state level, O’Connell also said that schools with marked score increases would be sharing their strategies with other districts.

Speaking to reporters from a middle school in the San Fernando Valley, O’Connell said every grade level continues to make steady progress on the STAR exams.

Despite the overall gains, O’Connell said he remains concerned about the disparity between the scores of black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts.

“We have slightly narrowed the achievement gap over the last two years, particularly among our Latino students, but not as much with our African American students,” he said.

O’Connell said closing that gap is his top priority, and that the difference “simply cannot be explained away by economic factors.” He noted that black and Hispanic students who are not from poor areas still perform at similar levels to disadvantaged white students.

“If we’re going to have that well-skilled, well-educated analytical workforce, it must come from these subgroups,” he said. “These are the subgroups growing the fastest.” Already a challenge, narrowing these racial gaps will be even more difficult as schools cope with deep budget cuts implemented in the state Legislature this year, O’Connell said. The test scores reported this time next year will reflect a student body with larger class sizes, fewer summer school programs, a potentially shorter school year and fewer librarians, counselors and other resources, he said.

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