There was a bit of good news for California in the federal government’s latest round of academic test results: it’s one of seven states that registered four-point gains in reading comprehension among eighth-graders.
But that positive morsel in the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing of fourth- and eighth-graders released this week was more than offset by stagnation in other overall trends and, even more unfortunately, by continuation of what educators call the “achievement gap.”
That is the yawning differential of academic skills within socioeconomic and ethnic subgroups.
Take, for example, that increase in eighth grade reading, from a 2015 score of 259 on a 500-point scale to 263 in 2017.
That’s still below the designated “proficiency” level for the nation of 280 and while California’s average scores for white and Asian students reach that level, those for black and Latino students are about 30 points lower, a gap that is fundamentally unchanged over the last 10 years of NAEP testing. Not surprisingly, eighth grade “English-learners” in California fall 50 points behind students deemed to be proficient in English.
The achievement gap in mathematics is even wider, with just 10 percent of California’s black eighth-graders rated as proficient, and 15 percent of Latinos, while 44 percent of white students and 29 percent of all California eighth-graders reach that mark.
The latter numbers are nothing to brag about, and California remains among states, mostly in the South, at the lower levels of overall educational attainment in the NAEP testing, a position it has occupied for many years. But the results for non-white kids, except for Asians, are truly abysmal.
The latest numbers should be a civic embarrassment and are new ammunition in the bitter political and legal war over how to close California’s stubbornly wide achievement gap.
Five years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature dramatically altered school finance with the declared goal of narrowing the gap. Most of the strings on state school aid were removed and school districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students were given extra money to improve their achievement.
Tens of billions of extra dollars have been poured into the schools since then but so far, national and state testing have not shown any obvious results.
Brown has insisted that local school officials have maximum flexibility in how the funds are spent, with only light oversight from the state, but civil rights and education reform groups, calling themselves the “Equity Coalition,” have demanded tighter accountability.
They want school officials to account more fully for how they spending the extra money and for results from that spending. They’ve pursued their cause in the Legislature, in the courts and in pleas to the state Board of Education, registering some individual wins, especially in the courts.
Overall, however, the coalition’s foes in the education establishment have prevailed on the accountability issue. Brown has proposed only one mild change in his new budget, calling for more financial reporting by districts on how they are spending funds from his Local Control Funding Formula.
Thus, the achievement gap will still be an issue for the next governor, and will be a conflict in this year’s battle for state superintendent of schools. It pits charter school advocate Marshall Tuck, who almost unseated state schools chief Tom Torlakson four years ago, against Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Richmond Democrat favored by the California Teachers Association and other elements of the education establishment.