In summary

California public school test scores are improving, but so slowly that it could take decades to close the achievement gap.

For the second year in a row, California students’ test scores have inched up so slowly that, by some estimates, it could take a generation for disadvantaged students to close the achievement gap with their peers.

That was the sobering assessment on Tuesday as the California Department of Education released the 2018 results of the state’s new, more rigorous system of standardized testing.

State education officials emphasized that at least the metrics are moving in the right direction. But all acknowledged that, four years after new standardized tests debuted to measure a sweeping overhaul of K-12 education, the numbers remain virtually stalled after an initial bump in scores on the first year after baseline tests were taken statewide.

Despite small overall improvements in reading and math for the 3 million-plus public school students in grades 3-8 and 11 who were tested, progress is moving at a snail’s pace, with stark disparities in passing rates between white and Asian American students and their Latino, black and disadvantaged classmates. At the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, poor students passed the math and reading exams at less than half the rate of students who were classified as not economically disadvantaged.

“California cannot fail this generation of students and risk furthering the divide between the haves, and have nots,” said Ted Lempert, President of Children Now, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group based in Oakland. “We must close gaps between vulnerable student populations and their peers.”

The proportion of California students meeting or exceeding the state’s learning standards in the English language exam edged up by just 1.3 percentage points to a hair shy of the 50 percent mark.

Meanwhile, only about 39 percent of students tested passed the math portion of the computer-based exam known as the “Smarter Balanced” assessment. That increase, too, was barely more than one point.


And those were the overall scores. Despite state spending formulas that direct billions in extra funding into schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students, the gains made by black students since last year—1.04 points in English and seven-tenths of a point in math—were even smaller than the overall increase. Only 32 percent of the black students tested met or exceeded the state English standards, and only 19.7 percent passed in math.

Among Hispanic students, improvements were a bit better, with about 39 percent passing in English and 26.6 percent passing in math. In English, the year-over-year bump was two points, about twice the average.

But that made scarcely a dent in the yawning gap between black and Latino achievement and that of white and Asian students, whose pass rates were roughly double, and in some cases triple that of Latino, poor  and black students.

Pass rates among Asian students were more than 73 percent in math and 76 percent in English. Among white students, the respective rates were 53.6 percent and nearly 65 percent.

In some of state’s top performing school districts—Santa Barbara and Santa Clara counties, for instance—90 percent of the kids met or exceeded reading and math standards. Meanwhile, in districts with high numbers of English language learners and low income students, some of the pass rates were in the single digits.

Elisha Smith Arrillaga, interim executive co-director of EdTrust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, calculated that, at these rates, it would take until 2047 for California’s low-income students just to catch up in reading proficiency with the rest of their peers.

“I’d say that these results are really a wake-up call, but the phone’s been ringing unanswered on this for years,” Arrillaga said. “California can’t be complacent with results like these.”

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, an advocacy group that supports charter schools, called the single percentage-point statewide gains “not acceptable.”

“At this rate, today’s children when they have grandchildren will be lucky if on average they’re all reading at grade level,” he said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson defended the pace of improvement in a statement that was released with the test scores.

“We’re encouraged by what we see, especially since these tests are more rigorous than previous paper and pencil tests. However, we need to make sure all students continue to make progress,” he said, adding that the state must continue to make a priority of narrowing the achievement gap.

The new scores come weeks after a massive collection of research studies by Stanford University, called Getting Down To Facts II, that found, among other things, that California’s students, compared with students elsewhere, are handicapped by a lack of preparation for school.

Other states, the study found, had made far greater strides in bringing educational parity to disadvantaged students. A decade ago, the chasm in California between white and Latino students in eighth-grade reading, a key measure, was the eighth-worst in the nation. Now it’s the fourth-worst.

The study estimated that California will have to increase school funding by nearly a third—$22 billion—and invest significantly in preschool and other early childhood programs to make a meaningful difference.

This year’s scores did reflect a few bright spots. Since 2015, when students switched to the exams that make up the state’s California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress system, overall scores have improved almost across the board.

Gains among Latino and economically disadvantaged students have, in particular, outdone the average. Overall, California students’ scores have risen by nearly 6 points over the past four years, in both math and English. But the largest gains happened in 2016, the first year after students first attempted the baseline test, in which numbers might be expected to be low.

Educators and researchers have characterized the computer-based Smarter Balanced exam as a more realistic barometer of students’ achievement in part because it is more rigorous than previous tests and aligns with the state’s Common Core-based learning standards.

The exam is “adaptive,” meaning that, unlike a traditional multiple choice test, students get easier or more difficult questions throughout the exam depending on their answers.

The test is administered to students in grades 3-8, as well as in the junior year of high school. Performance is graded on four levels: Students either “exceeded,” “met,” “nearly met,” or “did not meet” the state’s reading and math standards. Only the first two categories pass.

Some individual schools showed dramatic progress. State officials pointed to Kings Canyon Unified School District in Fresno County, where math scores rose 3.4 percentage points this year and English scores rose 2 points, with respective gains of 15 and 12. 5 points since 2015.

Third-grade scores were another bright spot. Since 2015, that grade level has made the largest gains in reading (10 percentage points) and math proficiency (nearly 9 percentage points). In 2018, 48 percent of California third-graders passed reading and almost 49 percent passed math.

Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, said in a statement that he was encouraged by the rate in which the state’s youngest students have improved.

“That our younger learners who have experienced standard-aligned instruction since kindergarten are improving faster is encouraging,” Kirst said.

But test scores for high school juniors nosedived. Fifty-six percent of 11th graders met the state’s reading standards, compared with nearly 60 percent in 2017. The number this year, in fact, was even lower than the 2015 baseline. And year-over-year 11th grade math scores fell by nearly a full point to 31.4 percent.

Individual test results have already gone out to parents, teachers, administrators and school boards, who have been studying them for several months. The new exams are part of a statewide education policy shift intended to improve students’ readiness for college or postsecondary careers and reverse decades-long disparities in achievement. Since 2013, a new funding mechanism has channeled more dollars to schools that have high concentrations of students who are poor, in foster care or are English language learners.

The system for measuring results and holding schools accountable has also changed, from one that largely depended on standardized test results to a new—and more complex—“dashboard” that combines scores with other metrics such student attendance, parent engagement and suspension rates. But the test numbers have taken on added significance as educators, legislators, advocates and parents try to gauge whether California’s overhaul is working.

Torlakson, Kirst and other state education leaders say it is, albeit slowly, and that the state should stay the course.

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Ricardo Cano covers California education for CalMatters. Cano joined CalMatters in September 2018 from The Arizona Republic and, where he spent three years as the education reporter. Cano...