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Sonoma County students remain ahead of their peers statewide in the latest round of STAR test scores, but officials warned that local students' steady gains are at risk because of current budget conditions.

Fifty-four percent of the approximately 4.7 million California students who took the Standardized Testing and Reporting program exams last spring scored proficient or advanced in English language arts, compared with 58 percent of Sonoma County's students. In math statewide, 50 percent of students scored proficient or advanced, compared with 53 percent in Sonoma County.

The state Department of Education released the data from last spring's testing season Monday, beginning a series of high stakes assessments and rankings using the results of tests given to students in grades 2 through 11.

Results released Monday are used by the state to determine each school's Academic Performance Index. School API rankings will be released in the coming weeks.

The STAR scores are also used to determine whether districts, schools and subgroups within the schools have met requirements laid out in the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Federal benchmarks rise each year until all students in all subgroups are expected to reach proficiency by 2014, a goal many educators and lawmakers say is unrealistic.

Statewide, students posted a 2 percentage point gain in English language arts over the past year and a 19-point gain since the test was first administered in 2003. In math, California's students posted a 2 percentage point gain over 2010 and a 15 percentage point increase over 2003.

"Obviously we are not saying to rest a minute. We are saying to redouble our efforts," State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson said of the state's gains.

"Just think what we could accomplish if we hadn't had $10 billion a year cut out of the schools," he said.

Countywide totals are only available going back so 2007. Since that time, Sonoma County students have jumped from 49 to 58 percent proficient or advanced in English language arts, and from 44 to 53 percent proficient or advanced in math.

Year over year, Sonoma County students remained ahead of their peers statewide nearly across the board.

Local students also remained ahead of their peers across the state in general science, where 60 percent of Sonoma County students scored proficient or advanced, compared with 57 percent of students throughout California. In biology, chemistry, earth science and physics, local students scored 49 percent proficient or advanced, compared with 43 percent of students in the state.

Local students lag behind the state average in one category, history and social science, despite logging a 3 percentage point gain over 2010 results.

Forty-seven percent of Sonoma County students tested proficient or advanced in that subject, compared with 48 percent of students statewide.

That result may point to more time being spent on reading and math skills, rather than history, according to Nancy Brownell, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

"The public should take away two messages from this year's STAR report," said Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

"The first is that local schools are making steady incremental progress in raising student achievement because teachers are staying focused on providing standards-aligned instruction. Second, Sonoma County continues to have test scores that are better than the state average. However, the financial stress that public schools are operating under is making progress more difficult and slower than we would like."

About 75 percent of districts in the county have shortened their school years to save money and still others have increased class sizes in response to deep reductions in state funding.

Piner-Olivet District in Santa Rosa posted strong gains despite having cut the length of its school year two years in a row. The district has also shortened by five days the school year that opens Wednesday.

"Like other districts, we are really looking at &‘How do we continue to serve our students?'" said Superintendent Jennie Snyder. "We have fewer teachers, fewer support staff. We are looking at ways that we structure our time."

"I think it really speaks to the work that teachers have been doing at their school sites," she said.

In Santa Rosa City Schools, the county's largest district, 60 percent of students were proficient or advanced in English language arts, up from 58 percent last year. In math, 62 percent of students were proficient or advanced, up from nearly 61 percent last year.

Despite the improvements, Superintendent Sharon Liddell expects the district to remain in federal sanctions when those marks are released in the coming weeks because the targets that must be reached are spiking steeply in advance of the 100 percent goal in 2014.

"We know we are on the right track because our growth has been steady every year," she said.

Last spring, the STAR test included English language arts exams for students in grades 2 through 11; math for grades 2 through 7 after which students are tested in individual disciplines; science for fifth-graders, eighth- and tenth-graders; and history and social science exams for eighth- and eleventh-graders.

For each test, students receive one of five grades: advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic. The state's goal is that all students score at least proficient; a level that is essential on track to enter a university after high school.