IUSD in the News: Uni High junior joins sister in earning a perfect score on the SAT

A University High School junior has achieved perfection on the SAT college entrance exam — four years after her older sister did the same.

Grace Xu, 16, learned the good news on Oct. 24, glimpsing her perfect score of 2400 on her mother’s cell phone, according to this story in the Orange County Register. (A subscription is required.) Back in 2009, Hope Xu, who was also a junior at Uni, experienced similar feelings of disbelief and elation after checking her score online.

Needless to say, running the table on the SAT is a very rare feat. According to the Register, 0.03 percent of 1.66 million 2013 graduates received a 2400. The percentage was a little higher in California, at 0.04 percent. Data for more recent test-takers will be released in 2015.

CBS News in Los Angeles also has a version of the story on its website.

Legislation swaps older STAR tests for modern assessments aligned with Common Core

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that will replace the state’s older standardized testing system with more modern, computer-based assessments aligned with the new Common Core instructional standards.

Authored by Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla, D-Concord, the bill that was signed into law on Oct. 2 suspends most Standardized Testing and Reporting exams for the current school year, meaning IUSD students won’t take California Standards Tests in the spring. (More on that in a moment.) That will enable school districts to begin transitioning to the new California Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress — or MAPP — assessments, which are slated to be administered during the 2014-15 school year.

“We are very pleased that the state has moved forward with new assessments that truly reflect the meaningful instruction that’s already taking place with the Common Core standards,” said Cassie Parham, IUSD’s assistant superintendent of education services. “These new standards take learning substantially deeper and align with our district’s own Continuous Improvement Efforts, and it’s critical that we not waste any more time with antiquated assessments.”

The new exams, developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, will feature computer-adaptive technology that can adjust questions based on previous right or wrong answers, providing much more precise feedback to indicate which skills and content areas have been mastered. Like the Common Core itself, the assessments will focus more on critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving.

“These are radically different tests and we will certainly need to build our technology infrastructure so that our students can learn to navigate this new environment,” IUSD Superintendent Terry Walker said. “Moving forward, the success of our students with Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments will depend on quality teaching as well as a strong technological backbone.”

Again, the new assessments won’t be rolled out until 2015, and the old standards tests will be shelved this year. But that doesn’t mean accountability and instructional data-gathering are on hold.

Parham said IUSD plans to work with leaders at each school to identify objective assessments for the current year that will help determine student placement in programs and courses. These will also emphasize critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving, she said.

“With the suspension of STAR testing, every school district in California now has an opportunity to engage more deeply with the Common Core State Standards,” she added.

IUSD educators weren’t the only ones praising the transition to more modern assessments.

“Faced with the choice of preparing California’s children for the future or continuing to cling to outdated policies of the past, our state’s leaders worked together and made the right choice for our students,” Tom Torlakson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said. “These new assessments represent a challenge for our education system — but a lifetime of opportunity for students. As a teacher, I’m thrilled to see our state and our schools once again leading the way.”

So what will the new California Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress (MAPP) program look like when its unveiled next year? Here’s a breakdown of the tests, courtesy of Parham:

  • Computer-adaptive Smarter Balanced Assessments in English-language arts and math for grades three through eight and 11 (These will be administered as field tests for the 2013-14 school year.)
  • Science assessments in grades five, eight and 10 (Current science assessments will continue to be used until replacement assessments are developed.)
  • The California Alternative Performance Assessment (CAPA) for grades two through 11 in ELA and math, and grades five, eight and 10 in science.
  • The Early Assessment Program (EAP) (For the 2013-14 school year, this will continue to be the 11th grade CST and augmented CST, which will continue to be voluntary for eligible 11th-graders. Assembly Bill 484 specifies that, beginning in 2014-15, the existing EAP may be replaced by the 11th grade Smarter Balanced assessment.)
  • The Primary Language Assessment (PLA) (Aligned to the old content standards, this can be administered by districts for English Learners and reclassified English Learners who are enrolled in dual immersion programs. AB 484 also requires the state superintendent to develop — and the state Board of Education to adopt — a new Common Core-aligned PLA no later than the 2016-17 school year, but that provision only applies if the Legislature appropriates funding for it in a future budget or bill.)

It’s official: IUSD’s Stonegate Elementary School has earned a national Blue Ribbon

IUSD’s newest elementary school is also its newest National Blue Ribbon School.

Stonegate Elementary learned on Tuesday morning that it was among 286 campuses from across the U.S. to have earned what is widely considered the nation’s high level of recognition for public and private schools. Only 15 schools in California were named 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools, and just two were recognized from Orange County.

Stonegate is now IUSD’s 14th Blue Ribbon School dating back to the start of the federal program in 1983. (The full list is below.) Principal Stan Machesky, who made the announcement during his students’ popular “Stonegate News” video broadcast, said the designation was particularly meaningful given the steady growth at Stonegate, which has seen its student population and teaching staff double since opening in 2009.

“You’re prideful, but you’re also humble at the same time,” Machesky said. “With the amount of growth that we’ve had with our teachers, as well as our students, it’s quite significant to have continued academic growth and success.”

Hailed for its environmentally-friendly design, which includes inverted-pyramid skylights in each classroom and a reflective “cool roof,” Stonegate was off the charts this year, posting a 963 on the state’s most recent Academic Performance Index, which measures overall achievement on a scale of 200 to 1,000. The campus, which also earned California Distinguished School honors in 2010, was notified in December that it was a Blue Ribbon contender.

Nine months later, it’s time to celebrate.

“The rest of the country just learned what we in Irvine have known all along,” said Dr. Gavin Huntley-Fenner, president of the IUSD Board of Education. “Stonegate Elementary School is a phenomenal school with an exemplary staff and highly involved families. Stonegate Elementary advances the Irvine tradition of neighborhood schools that meet world-class standards of academic excellence. The success of this relatively new neighborhood school is also a culmination of years of student-focused, diligent planning by the Irvine Unified school board and staff.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of our Stonegate students,” he added. “Well done.”

So how do schools earn the Blue Ribbon designation? Well, it can be done one of two ways:

“Exemplary High-Performing” sites like Stonegate are those that rate among the very best on English and math assessments. Student subgroups at these schools, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, must also perform at a similarly high level.

“Exemplary-Improving” schools are those that are able to demonstrate significant improvement on assessments even though 40 percent or more of their students are from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Disadvantaged” refers to students who are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, those who receive federal Title I services, those who are limited in their English proficiency, migrant students and students who require special services.

Both paths require schools to complete extensive data reviews and exhaustive reports.

“These schools are wonderful illustrations of the work we do here in California schools to prepare our students to thrive in the world they will find outside of our classrooms,” State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said Monday. “I am proud to see them held up as national examples.”

This year’s Blue Ribbon schools will be formally honored in November at a national awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., where each winner will be presented with a special plaque and flag. For more details about the program, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s website on the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program.

Update from Oct. 7: The Orange County Register has posted a story on its website about Stonegate Elementary’s instructional program and use of technology. (Subscription required.)

Board Briefs: School board weighs in on use of Common Core implementation funds

The Board of Education on Tuesday discussed how best to use $5.8 million in available state funding for the implementation of the California Common Core instructional standards.

The Common Core standards are part of a national movement aimed at promoting learning on a much deeper level, with a shift toward critical thinking, creativity, articulating positions and collaboration. (You can read more about the standards in this column by Superintendent Terry Walker.) To assist California’s schools with this very significant transition, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation over the summer earmarking $1.25 billion, or approximately $200 per student, to support the integration.

Just as there are specific rules on how these dollars must be spent, there are also a number of steps for school districts to follow, including a requirement that districts hold public meetings to explain and adopt their proposals.

On Tuesday night, Assistant Superintendent Cassie Parham shared a staff recommendation that would allocate approximately $2.4 million for professional training to grow the base of teacher leaders and mentors. Parham said an additional $1.8 million would pay for instructional materials, and about $1.6 million would pay for technology upgrades to aid the implementation and enable computer-based student assessments.

You can find the complete list of potential Common Core expenditures on the Board of Education’s Sept. 17 agenda. Note that the board is expected to vote on the recommendation at its next meeting on Oct. 1.

Here are some other highlights from Tuesday’s session:

  • Board members voted unanimously to authorize district staff to enter into a contract with TBWB Strategies, which will help IUSD communicate with the public about its technology needs and the implications of a potential technology bond. The Orange County Register has that story here. (Subscription required)
  • The board unanimously approved the submission of a request to the Irvine Public Schools Foundation outlining funding priorities for the 2013-14 school year.
  • To accommodate rapid growth resulting from new development on the district’s northern end, the board approved temporary revisions to Board Policy No. 7112, which covers school size. The temporary changes allow for a maximum enrollment of 1,200 at impacted elementary sites as new campuses are built.
  • The board approved attendance boundaries for new communities to the north, aligned with the recent decision to move the opening date of a planned elementary school in Portola Springs to the fall of 2015. The new boundary assignments will apply to future IUSD students and will not impact those who are currently enrolled.
  • Irvine Public Schools Foundation CEO Neda Eaton talked about the foundation’s upcoming annual campaign and presented the district with a poster-sized check made out to IUSD with two amounts: More than $1.44 million indicated how much IPSF contributed to the district in grants and donations for the 2012-13 school year, and $1.72 million represented the overall value of IPSF’s enrichment programs. (Eaton is pictured in the photo with Board of Education President Dr. Gavin Huntley-Fenner and Superintendent Walker.)
  • For its efforts to promote energy conservation and environmental sustainability, IUSD was also presented with the Emerald Award by the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce of Orange County. Chamber President Jun Jao specifically praised the environmental benefits of the district’s solar initiative, which has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual savings and served as the basis for lessons on solar power.

Irvine students continue to shine on California Standards Tests

IUSD students continue to outpace their county and state counterparts on standards tests, according to the latest batch of scores released this month by the California Department of Education.

Serving as the cornerstone of the annual Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, California Standards Tests — or CSTs for short — are taken in the spring to measure student knowledge of the state’s content standards in grades two through 11. In each subject, scores are divided into five levels of achievement: advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic.

Results made public on Aug. 8 reveal that 83 percent of IUSD students scored in the proficient and advanced ranges in English language arts in 2013, and 81.4 percent did the same in math. Statewide, 56.4 percent were proficient or better in English and 52.1 percent met this benchmark in math. In Orange County, the proficiency rates were 64.6 percent for English and 60.8 percent for math.

Though IUSD’s scores plot an upward trajectory over the long-term, year-over-year scores for each grade and content area were relatively flat in 2013, reflecting a broader trend throughout the state. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson cited “ongoing budget reductions and the transition to the Common Core State Standards” as the primary reasons.

“As you would expect for a school system in transition, results varied from grade to grade, subject to subject, and school to school,” Torlakson said, “but the big picture is one of remarkable resilience despite the challenges.”

“While we all want to see California’s progress continue,” he said, “these results show that in the midst of change and uncertainty, teachers and schools kept their focus on students and learning. That’s a testament to the depth of their commitment to their students and the future of our state.”

Here’s what else the local results show:

•  The percentage of IUSD students scoring proficient or advanced in English language arts in 2013 ranged from 73 percent in 11th grade to 88 percent in fourth grade. Grades nine, 10 and 11 increased their scores by one percentage point from 2012. Grades five through eight decreased by a percentage point each, while grades two and four decreased by three percentage points each. Third-grade English scores remained the same.

•  Math scores ranged from 58 percent proficient and advanced for 11th-graders to 90 percent for eighth-graders. (Keep in mind that these scores were aggregated from different tests for grades eight through 11.) Math scores for grades five, eight, nine and 11 improved slightly, rising 2 to 4 points, while scores for grades two, three, seven and 10 declined slightly, dropping a point or two. Scores for grades four and six were unchanged from 2012.

•  IUSD students excelled on grade-level science tests, with 88 percent of fifth-graders, 92 percent of eighth-graders and 82 percent of tenth-graders scoring in the proficient or advanced ranges.

•  A preliminary look at the achievement gap shows progress by IUSD’s Hispanic students over a five-year period, but more work must be done to close gaps among subgroups.

Though big changes are coming as a result of Common Core implementation, CST scores have weighed heavily in the state’s annual accountability index and in the federal No Child Left Behind requirements. For school-level reports or to access specific STAR results from districts and counties around the state, click here.

By the way, the Orange County Register also has a story about IUSD’s CST scores here. (Subscription required.)

Superintendent: Common Core standards will promote a deeper understanding of key subjects


The most sweeping educational reform of the nation’s public schools is on its way, and it happens to align nicely with the direction the Irvine Unified School District is already heading.

Set to be implemented over the next two years, the California Common Core standards are part of a national movement that will bring focus and clarity to the work of educators. More to the point, they were thoughtfully crafted to promote understanding at a deeper conceptual level, placing an emphasis on thinking critically and creatively, articulating positions, taking intellectual risks and collaborating effectively.

That’s a pronounced shift from the accountability and assessment movement that began in the 1990s, leading us through an era that was defined as much by its high-stakes tests as it was by a vast curriculum that often feels a mile wide and an inch deep. I am proud to say that our staff and students performed exceptionally well in these years, and our schools posted some of the state’s highest assessment scores. At the same time, we never lost sight of our primary objective, which is to empower students with the skills, knowledge and values necessary to become leaders in the 21st century.

And that’s really what the California Common Core is about. It’s about teaching our students to investigate, collaborate and discover. It’s about solving real-world problems and learning multiple paths to each solution. It’s about cultivating diverse skills and nurturing talents that transcend the capacity of existing technologies. It’s about taking our work with students a step further and substantially deeper, and the IUSD teachers who have given the Common Core an early test-drive have been overwhelmingly in favor as they are directly aligned with our own district-adopted Continuous Improvement Efforts. (We encourage parents, as partners in supporting our students, to review the latter document because it frames our vision for student learning and guides our instructional practices in supporting that vision.)

So what will the Common Core standards look like at your child’s school?

Hands-on activities and collaborative exercises will be much more prevalent, and English courses will see a shift toward nonfiction texts. Media skills will be integrated into everyday lessons, writing will be shared with outside audiences and next-generation assessments will evaluate higher order processes. (More on those assessments in a moment.)

Math classes will teach fewer concepts, but they will reach new depths in exploring those concepts. Students will be challenged with more real-world applications and fewer theoretical equations, and there will be a greater emphasis on learning the process rather than merely providing the correct answer. Simply put, it will no longer be enough to know that 5 times 4 equals 20; students will need to understand why 5 times 4 is 20 before they move on to more complex work.

Naturally, we will need to introduce new instructional materials relevant to Common Core, and the state must adopt new assessments that promote accountability. Much of the latter work is already underway, including the development of “Smarter Balanced Assessments” for English and math. These exams will feature computer-adaptive technology that adjusts the difficulty of questions based on previous right or wrong answers, generating individualized feedback that will indicate which skills have been mastered by each student.

IUSD has written some incredible success stories over the course of its four decades, and each one is a reflection of its teachers, parents, students and staff. This latest curricular transition provides yet another opportunity for our district to shine. The California Common Core is more than just a state directive; it is a pedagogical shift that is worthy of our full commitment because these new standards embody the essential capacities our students will need to thrive in the 21st century. Irvine Unified begins this transition with a firm confidence that our organization has the talent and dedication for the exciting journey ahead.

Community Advisory Committee for GATE to host guest speaker at May 14 meeting

The public is invited to attend a general meeting of the Community Advisory Committee for Gifted and Talented Education, featuring a special guest speaker, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 14.

Educational consultant Cindy Muchnick will lead a presentation titled, “Steps to Success: Middle School and Beyond” at the session, which will be held at IUSD’s Administration Center, 5050 Barranca Parkway in Irvine.

For more information on IUSD’s Gifted and Talented Education program, click here.

Registration open for middle school students planning to take GATE entrance exam

Registration is now open for current seventh-graders planning to take the optional Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or OLSAT, in July.

The OLSAT helps identify students for the district’s GATE program, and IUSD will administer the test at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, July 16 at Vista Verde School.

Students who score at the 95th percentile or higher on the OLSAT can qualify for IUSD’s Gifted and Talented Education program, though that’s not the only way to be identified for GATE enrollment. Alternative identification methods can be found here on the district’s website.

Again, the OLSAT is optional. To sign your child up for this exam, click here and submit your online registration form by the July 1 deadline.

Northwood High School has that ‘Distinguished’ look – for the third time since 2005

For the third time in eight years, Northwood High has earned the state’s highest level of recognition for a public school.

Northwood was one of 218 middle and high schools announced as California Distinguished Schools on Thursday by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. Each of the sites will be honored in May with a special plaque and flag, both signifying a prestigious designation that lasts four years.

sm-bannerAnd to think it was just four years ago that Northwood High hung its 2009 California Distinguished School banner, which of course followed on the heels of its 2005 banner.

That’s a lot of banners for a campus that opened in 1999.

“Fourteen years ago, Irvine Unified created a new high school with the intent of having it live up to our district’s history of great schools,” said Dr. Gavin-Huntley Fenner, president of the IUSD Board of Education. “Northwood has not only met those expectations, but it has exceeded them in nearly every category.”

“As a school board we could not be more proud of the students, parents and staff for this recognition,” Huntley-Fenner said. “They exemplify the best of our school district to the rest of the state.”

The California Distinguished School program has been around for nearly three decades now, recognizing exemplary elementary and secondary sites in alternating years. More recently, the program has also sought to spotlight schools that have made great strides in closing long-standing achievement gaps.

Sites that met specific accountability objectives in 2012 were once again encouraged to submit an application for the distinction. That application had to include a comprehensive description of at least two signature practices, which were were later verified by county-led review teams.

“This is a tremendous honor that really validates the hard work and dedication of our teachers, students, support staff and volunteers,” Northwood Principal Leslie Roach said Thursday. “We are extremely proud of the opportunities we are able to provide our students, and we don’t do this work for the accolades. Nevertheless, it is extremely gratifying to be recognized by your peers and by the state of California as a model for academic excellence.”

Northwood and the other award-winning schools will go on to serve as mentor sites for campuses hoping to replicate their successes, and the California Department of Education plans to help by updating a database of Distinguished School practices.

“These schools have gone the extra mile to provide high-quality instruction that puts their students on the right path toward career and college,” State Superintendent Torlakson said. “Given the enormous challenges schools have faced in recent years, it is inspiring to see this kind of success in so many schools. Our future depends on meeting the needs of every student no matter where they come from or where they live.”

For more information about the program, check out the California Distinguished Schools website. Oh, and here’s a list of IUSD’s Distinguished Schools to date.

IUSD campuses rank prominently in O.C. Register’s ‘best elementary schools’ list

The Orange County Register has released its latest rundown of the county’s “best elementary schools” of 2013, with four IUSD campuses making the top 10. Overall, a dozen Irvine elementary sites earned honors with symbolic gold, silver or bronze medals.

As we’ve said in previous posts, IUSD generally doesn’t emphasize school rankings, recognizing that each list is limited by its own criteria. In reality, there’s so much that goes into building a successful learning environment – from the staff and students to the parents and the level of enrichment – that comparisons tend to be subjective.

Yet we would be remiss in not mentioning that Turtle Rock, Stone Creek, Meadow Park and Northwood elementary schools all ranked in the top 10, and there are more medal winners from IUSD. In fact, the Irvine and Los Alamitos districts had the highest concentrations of upper-echelon schools.

The Register’s rating system factored in about a dozen statistics related to academics and school environment, with academics carrying most of the weight. K-8 schools including Plaza Vista and Vista Verde were excluded because their data is more difficult to compare.

To access the newspaper’s analysis, including a database and an explanation of its methodology, click here.