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Sonoma County students continue to score higher than their peers across the state in English language arts and math, though the gaps are narrowing, according to the latest round of academic scores released by the California Department of Education Friday.

Sixty-one percent of Sonoma County students scored proficient or advanced on the English language arts portion of the Standardized Testing and Reporting program exams taken last spring. In math, 52 percent of students reached the goal of scoring proficient or advanced — down a percentage point from last year.

Statewide, those percentages were 57 and 51 percent, respectively.

Although the results mean that barely half of all students are competent in math, educators still found reason to be encouraged.

"In less than a decade, California has gone from having only one student in three score proficient to better than one student in two," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a prepared statement.

Approximately 4.7 million second-through-11th graders across California took the STAR test last spring, including 53,000 in Sonoma County.

Over a 10-year span, Sonoma County students posted a 17-percentage point gain in English language arts and a 12-point increase in math.

"When you look at the 10-year profile we are moving forward, we are trending upward," said Steve Herrington, superintendent of Sonoma County Office of Education.

Despite modest improvement overall, a number of schools in Sonoma County posted sharp gains at particular grade levels and subjects.

Second graders at Sunridge Charter School in Sebastopol went from 28 percent proficient or advanced in 2011 to 96 percent in math. In English language arts, the second grade went from 16 percent to 72 percent proficient or advanced in a year.

Doyle Park Elementary School second graders went from 29 percent proficient or advanced in math to 73 percent. In English, their scores rose from 48 percent to 79 percent in a year. Doyle Park was closed in May by Santa Rosa City Schools after years of declining enrollment and faltering test scores.

El Molino High School's sophomores went from 12 percent proficient or advanced in earth science to 57 percent in one year, while Healdsburg High's freshman pushed their earth science scores from 12 percent proficient or advanced in 2011 to 61 percent.

At Miwok Valley Elementary School in Petaluma, fifth graders went from 31 percent proficient or advanced to 65 percent in 2012. In English, the increase was 48 percent to 79 percent.

Educators said grade level spikes or dips can be dramatically affected by the academic makeup of a particular class because the comparison is between groups of second graders in different years, rather than the same group of kids over time.

"We tend to look at trends over time," said Gail Eagan, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for K-6 at Santa Rosa City Schools. "There are just too many variables from year to year."

But dramatic changes can also lead to an examination if teachers did something different or if a particular class of kids came into the year at a higher level, said Miwok Principal Kim Harper.

"We pick the brains of the teachers and see if it's something we can all do," she said. "We spent a lot of time last year targeting students," she said.

Educators across the North Coast said academic gains will be harder to come by was budget cuts deepen.

"We have taken $60 million out of Sonoma County public schools since 2008 to now," Herrington said. "This has led to larger class sizes, fewer after-school programs, and less individual assistance to struggling students."

But Herrington acknowledged that the state is now making faster gains than are students in Sonoma County.

"They are moving up and we are plateauing," he said.

In Mendocino County, students posted 2.5 percent increase in English language arts to nearly 47 percent proficient or advanced. In math, the increase was one percent to just more than 39 percent proficient or advanced.

"We aren't setting the world on fire, but we are continuing to improve," said Mendocino County Superintendent Paul Tichinin.

In Lake County, math scores rose nearly three percentage points to more than 39 percent. In English language arts, the scores went from 45 percent in 2011 to nearly 47 percent in 2012.

With about 7,000 students taking the test last spring, a one percent increase means 70 more kids in Lake County are proficient or advanced than the year before, said Tim Gill, senior director for educational services in the county.

"We are on the right track" despite deep budget cuts, said Lake County Superintendent Wally Holbrook. "We have gone through so many cost reduction processes, we are having to be more and more refined."

"Our expectations are not even staying status quo, they are getting greater. We are having to figure out ways to do that with continuing cuts. It's really putting a strain on our creativity," Holbrook said.

STAR tests include 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 results released Friday mark the beginning of a series of high-stakes assessments and rankings. The test scores are used by the state to determine each school's Academic Performance Index. Those rankings are expected to be released by the California Department of Education in early October.

The STAR scores also are 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 say is impossible.

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