For the first time in a decade, the percentage of Sonoma County students considered proficient or advanced in key academic subjects has declined, according to data released Thursday by the California Department of Education.

<a href="http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/99999999/multimedia/110819558" target="_blank">View the 2012-2013 STAR test score database.</a>

Fewer students scored proficient or advanced in English language arts, history-social science and science when the statewide tests were conducted in the spring. Math results remained even between 2012 and 2013.

"Our schools will need to concentrate on English-language arts as county scores in this content area were down at most grade levels," Sonoma County Office of Education Assistant Superintendent Mickey Porter said in a statement. "It is a SCOE priority to help them in this effort."

The drop mirrored declines across California, where a slightly smaller percentage of students were deemed proficient or advanced in math, English language arts and science than in 2012. In social science, the percentage of California's students considered proficient or advanced increased 0.6 percent over last year.

In Sonoma County, 58 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in English language arts, down three percent from 2012. The percentage of students who mastered the social science test went from 48 percent in 2012 to 47 percent this year. In science, the percentage of proficient or advanced students fell from 61 percent to 59 percent. Fifty-two percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math, the same as in the spring of 2012.

The California Standards Test, the major component of the Standardized Testing and Reporting program, was given to approximately 4.7 million second- through 11th-graders last spring, including more than 53,000 students in Sonoma County.

Many area officials are still sorting through the data, trying to determine how the scores will affect a series of high stakes scores and report cards that penalize campuses and districts for failure to meet ever-increasing academic targets laid out under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In addition to the federal accountability system, the current test scores are used by the state to determine each school's Academic Performance Index. Those rankings, along with results from federal academic assessments, are expected to be released by the Department of Education in September or October.

The current system of penalties and accountability remains largely in flux as schools across California and the nation begin adopting the Common Core curriculum and assessment system — a program that many educators expect to replace much of No Child Left Behind.

That change in focus has been pointed to as one reason students failed to make gains for the first time in years.

Experts across the state also said the lag could be attributed to years of steep budget cuts which have forced teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and slashed support programs for struggling students.

"We went through several years of financial reductions which takes a lot of your support staff and professional development out of the picture," said Steve Jorgensen, superintendent of Cloverdale School District. "I think that would have an effect."

"In our district, it hasn't impacted the diversity of classes that are offered that are closely assessed by (STAR), but it has certainly affected class size and the number of school days," said West Sonoma County Superintendent Keller McDonald.

Superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education Steve Herrington said that while budget cuts are to blame for the elimination of summer school, intervention programs as well as a shortened school year and an increase in class sizes, some districts are simply shifting focus from the current test to the new Common Core curriculum which is billed as an entirely new way to teach concepts and assess learning.

"I think they are looking forward to the new test. The other test has lived a lifespan of about 10 years," he said.

The implementation of Common Core curriculum is already under way in many districts in Sonoma County despite schools' being required to continue to complete the older Standardized Testing and Reporting program.

"We started this year," said Chuck Bush, superintendent of Cinnabar School District in Petaluma. "(Common Core) standards are more about deeper understanding and real learning, not just memorizing random facts. It's about really being able to think."

Still, the No Child Left Behind system of testing and penalties remains in place and many area officials are casting a wary eye to the future when a record number of Sonoma County schools and districts are expected to fall into sanctions for failing to meet academic targets.

"No one knows how that is going to compare to what we are doing now and there is a lot of worry about dramatic drops in test scores but nobody really knows what in the world the state is going to do," Bush said.

"All of it is kind of messy at this point," he said. "My position is, we can't worry about when the politics are going to catch up. We have to do what is best for kids."

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this article. Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.