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Only A Third of Fresno Unified Students Made the Grade in State Reading Tests
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By Nancy Price, Multimedia Journalist
Published 10 months ago on
June 22, 2023

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Only 35.1% of Fresno Unified’s students met or exceeded standards in the state’s assessment of English language arts, according to preliminary data reported at Wednesday night’s board meeting.

“I was like, OK, we’re going to start in August. We’re going to be ready to take off. Boom. And we’re not there. So in August, we won’t be here. … These SBAC scores are a state of emergency. They’re 911. The house is on fire.” — Trustee Keshia Thomas, representing the Edison High region

That’s a slight improvement over last year, when only 32.24% of students met or exceeded standards on the Smarter Balanced Assessments, or SBAC.

Needless to say, if there had been any doubts over whether there’s a need for Fresno Unified’s new Literacy Initiative, the testing results — which district officials repeatedly emphasized are preliminary — would have dispelled them.

Superintendent Bob Nelson announced in April the goal of the Literacy Initiative is to have every student reading by the end of first grade.

Dr. Natasha Baker, the district’s chief academic officer who led Wednesday’s presentation, emphasized that the district is laying the groundwork now for designing a comprehensive plan, which involves working with principals, teachers, and other school staffers on outlining priorities that may be specific to their region. Fresno Unified has seven regions that roughly correspond with the high school areas.

According to the stated timeline, the third of three phases will begin in October and will include outlining steps to develop district-wide criteria, timetables, budgets, research, and metrics, and will conclude in May 2024.

Moving Too Slowly?

Trustee Keshia Thomas said she felt frustrated that the district, which already has initiatives in place to boost student literacy that includes the African American Academic Acceleration program, appears to be “going all the way back to the drawing board where we should be so much further ahead than this.

“In my mind, just talking about me, I was like, OK, we’re going to start in August. We’re going to be ready to take off. Boom. And we’re not there. So in August, we won’t be here. … These SBAC scores are a state of emergency. They’re 911. The house is on fire.”

Baker said that the district has earmarked significant resources — $100 million over five years — to the Literacy Initiative, but work needs to be done first to determine how that money is best spent, while also allowing for regional differences.

“I’ll say that again, planning before implementation, with quarterly progress monitoring by region, by school, by student.” — Dr. Natasha Baker, chief academic officer, Fresno Unified 

“And so there is an opportunity in the coming school year for there to be comprehensive planning prior to implementation. I’ll say that again, planning before implementation, with quarterly progress monitoring by region, by school, by student,” she said.

Baker and the regional supervisors, working with a paper binder that was displayed on an overhead projector as trustees buried their heads their own binders, talked about the work that has been done so far and the work that will be done this summer to prepare for meetings in September with Nelson.

“Every Child’s A Reader, Our Comprehensive Three-Year Literacy Plan” includes statistics on how students in preschool through first grade performed on the district’s final iReady test this spring and students in grades 3 through 12 performed on the SBAC in each school and region.

The results for both sets of testing showed that students at all grade levels are struggling to reach proficiency or meet standards.

While some schools — including Bullard, Duncan Polytechnical and Design Science high schools, Computech Middle School, Manchester GATE, Baird, and Storey elementary schools — averaged above the standard, most Fresno schools averaged below the standard. Some, such as Gaston and Fort Miller Middle schools and Heaton Elementary, averaged more than 100 points below the standard, according to the preliminary SBAC numbers.

The district based its SBAC data on summarized, student-level reports, representing about 85% of students tested, said Edgar Pelayo, a manager with the district’s research, evaluation, and assessment department. The remainder of the district’s test results are still being compiled, he said. Official school and district-level results have not yet been released by the California Department of Education.

Regional Plans

The regional supervisors briefly talked Wednesday evening about holding preliminary meetings on developing literacy plans with staffers who targeted a variety of needs that included identifying interventions, providing literacy coaches, having professional training for instructors and administrators, and engaging community partners at those schools now designated as community schools.

Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas warned the administrators not to lose sight of the district’s goal — to have all students reading by the end of first grade. She recommended that the focus be on the youngest children, from preschool through first grade.

“I would implore us to … focus on the goal because we could get pulled in a million different directions around literacy, and then we’re spreading our resources in a million different directions because all of it’s important and it’s hard to say no,” she said. “But if we’re truly going to go out with a campaign and talk about ‘your kids are going to read by first grade’ — and that’s not to say that we’re not going to do anything for ninth graders.

“But the focus of this document and the focus of our planning and the focus of our regional efforts and the focus of everything should be early learning to maybe third grade. And that’s it. And I see we’re asking for a lot of other stuff. And it’s very easy to get distracted and I would implore us to not to do that.”

The framework shown Wednesday to the board will require staffers across the regions to describe how their regional plans align with the district’s goals, including reading by the end of the first grade; provide an assessment plan for children in preschool through first grade, including the frequency of assessments and reviews; develop a budget worksheet for staff; and show how schools will use academic coaches, literacy coaches, or reading specialists to boost the ability of classroom teachers to provide high-quality literacy instruction.

Climbing Up

Fresno Unified has performed near the bottom in comparison with other large urban districts with similar demographics nationwide for decades.

San Diego was 5 points above standard, Long Beach was 8 points below standard, the state of California was 12 points below standard, and Fresno was 52 points below standard.

“Every Child’s A Reader, Our Comprehensive Three-Year Literacy Plan” includes comparisons showing that Fresno trailed Long Beach and San Diego unifieds, both large urban districts, as well as the state of California average in the English language arts SBAC testing last year. In San Diego, 53% of students met or exceeded standards; in Long Beach, 48%; the state average was 47%, while Fresno’s average was 32%.

San Diego was 5 points above standard, Long Beach was 8 points below standard, the state of California was 12 points below standard, and Fresno was 52 points below standard.

The state uses the “distance from standard” calculation for the California Dashboard’s accountability model instead of averages of meeting or exceeding the standard, Pelayo said.

Fresno had been making gains in the SBAC English language arts testing from 2015-16 to 2018-19, when the district’s average of meeting or exceeding standards rose from 31% to 38%. The state did not test in the 2019-20 school year because of the pandemic, and Fresno’s average slipped to 32% the following year.

Because of SBAC adjustments, the state now considers the 2021-22 school year to be the “baseline” year for comparison purposes, and not prior years.

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Nancy Price,
Multimedia Journalist
Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email

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