Sonoma Valley Unified School District has high graduation rates, but low test scores

Sonoma Valley Unified School District students rank ‘low’ in English and math, but ‘high’ in graduation rate, according to the recently posted 2022 California School Dashboard.|

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District has a 92.8% high school graduation rate, exceeding the state average of 87.4%, yet it was rated “low” on English language and mathematics in 2022, according to California School Dashboard data released this month.

This was among the key findings released about the local school district on the dashboard, an online tool that shows how educational agencies and schools are performing in relation to state and local indicators in California’s school accountability system. The data seems to suggest that many SVUSD high school students are graduating with insufficient skills, but the district’s acting superintendent, Dr. Elizabeth Kaufman, says the situation actually is more complex.

“It depends on how we measure student learning,” she wrote in an email. “While a state assessment administered in grades 3-8 and 11 is a helpful metric to determine how our students perform in comparison to other students at the state and county level, it is not directly connected to instruction.”

She said that students need passing grades to progress toward graduation, and grades are comprised of multiple ways of determining learning and understanding.

“As our system continues to work on developing high-quality, rigorous core instruction, we also look at ways to ensure our instructional content and ways of measuring student learning are calibrated across sections of the same course or classrooms at the same grade level,” she wrote. “This work has been underway in Sonoma Valley for several years, with our focus on identifying common standards, developing proficiency maps and creating common assessments of student learning.”

Dawn Mawhinney, director of educational services, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the dashboard findings at the Dec. 13 Board of Trustees meeting. She said that because the pandemic interrupted the statewide data, collection and accountability systems, the 2022 dashboard marks a restart of the systems. Only 2022 ratings are provided this year, which will be considered a “base” year. Annual comparisons will again be available once 2023 data is finalized late next year.

The 2022 dashboard ranks school districts and schools on a five-point scale, from 1 (very low) to 5 (very high). In addition to the English language, math and graduation categories, the dashboard provides chronic absenteeism, suspension rate and college/career ratings, although the college/career rating is not included in the 2022 report.

As a district, SVUSD was rated low on English language arts, low on mathematics, medium on English language learner progress, high on suspension rate and very high on absenteeism. These ratings are identical to those of the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District — a nearby and similar-sized district — except for in suspension rate, in which Cotati has a medium ranking.

English language arts and math

After the meeting, Mawhinney said that the district’s low ratings in English and math were to be expected.

The 2022 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress report, issued by the California Department of Education in November, showed that 36.8% of students met the state standard (standards are set by the California Board of Education) in English language arts in 2022, compared with 42.3% in 2019, and that 19.9% achieved it in math, as opposed to 26.8% in 2019.

Based on the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments and the California Alternate Assessments, which are used to determine dashboard ratings and are taken annually by student in grades 3- 8 and 11, local students scored 35.1 points below the state standard in English language arts, while statewide, students scored 12.2 points below the standard. In math, Sonoma students scored 88.2 points below the state standard, compared with students scoring 51.7 points below it statewide.

“It is not a surprise that the pandemic and distance learning had a negative impact on student learning,” Mawhinney wrote in an email. “Scores in SVUSD trend with those of other districts across the state and with students across the nation following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Kaufman wrote, “In addition to the impact of the pandemic, we have had disruptions to student learning due to school closures from fire and smoke.”

The district’s ratings on the dashboard in English language arts vary from very low to high, depending on the student population, and the math scores range from very low to low.

“It is important to note that our two adopted mathematics programs — Bridges and CPM — are heavily reliant on language and literacy, so performance levels are confounded by literacy skills,” Kaufman wrote.

She said that at a very basic level, to improve the English and math scores, the district needs to have consistent, systematic instruction in its core English arts and math programs every year, over time. In addition, she says that extra time is needed to provide targeted instruction that addresses areas of student need and is of sufficient specificity and duration for students’ learning to be accelerated so that they master grade level standards.

“Our district has a focus on high-quality, rigorous core instruction supported by multitiered systems of support,” Kaufman wrote. “As we continue to strengthen our program and build the supports needed to help students who are returning from the pandemic significantly below grade level, we expect to see improvement in all areas.”

SVUSD students in grades 3-12 participate in English language arts and math screening three times per year.

“With curriculum assessments and teacher-developed assessments, we are able to monitor students’ progress in real time,” Mawhinney wrote. “The SVUSD administration and teachers have been working closely to address the data and put strategies in place to accelerate student learning. There is work still to be done, but SVUSD has caring and dedicated teachers and staff that truly care about students.”

English language learner progress, absenteeism and suspensions

In English language learner progress — a new metric in California’s approach to accountability — 51% of SVUSD students and 50.3% of students statewide made progress toward English language proficiency.

“It looks primarily at language growth for our students identified as English learners,” Kaufman wrote. “As a district, our goal is that all of our English learners master each of the four domains of language — listening, speaking, reading and writing — in their native language and in English within their first five to seven years of enrollment in schools in the United States.”

The district had a 39.4% chronic absenteeism among students in grades K-8, compared with 30% statewide. Kaufman suspected the rate was due in part to encouraging students to stay home when they had COVID symptoms, a practice that was used across the state.

“I’m not sure I can explain why without further review. Anything I add would be conjecture at this point,” Kaufman wrote.

Mawhinney added, “The 2022-23 school year has experienced better attendance, but COVID and the flu are still impacting our families. When COVID, the flu and other illnesses interrupt a student’s ability to participate, it has a negative impact. Attendance is important for students to experience consistent instruction.”

The portion of K-12 students who were suspended one day last school year was 4.8%, compared with 3.1% statewide.

The California Education Code lists specific circumstances in which disciplinary action can lead to suspensions, but doesn’t indicate the reasons or root causes for them.

“With the return to school from the pandemic, schools nationally are seeing an increase in student disciplinary events,” Kaufman wrote. “We have a number of programs in place in Sonoma Valley to help us continue to work on developing our climate and culture to improve student engagement and our ability to serve the needs of all students.”

She says the district continues to support students thanks to an enlarged staff of school psychologists and guidance counselors as well as wellness centers.

“The data show that we have more to do, especially with respect to our support of students with disabilities and foster youth, and our work is underway,” she said.

The state launched the California School Dashboard in March 2017 to give parents and the general public a more complete picture of what is happening in schools and districts, and to identify districts that need extra support. It is part of the state’s accountability system, based on the Local Control Funding Formula state law, which was passed in 2013 and significantly changed how California provides funding to local schools and holds local educational agencies accountable for student performance.

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

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