The results — the most thorough look yet at the pandemic’s toll on learning — left education officials and experts neither surprised nor hopeless.
California’s Education Department today released student test scores showing a statewide decline that nearly wiped out the academic progress made since the state overhauled how it funds education in 2014.
The gist of the scores, the most extensive measure so far of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on student achievement: The percentage of California students meeting state math standards plummeted 7 percentage points to 33%, and the percentage meeting English language standards dropped 4 percentage points, to 47%.
Some scores for students of color and those from low-income households dropped less dramatically than their counterparts, an indication that the state’s funding formula, which sends more money to high-needs districts, worked to soften the blow of two years of disrupted learning.
The results of the state’s Smarter Balanced test left education officials and experts neither surprised nor hopeless.
“It’s useful data, and it gets everybody talking,” said Li Cai, an education professor at UCLA. “Everybody comes up with creative ideas, and they say let’s do it. That’s pretty fundamentally an American ideal.”
As if to prove that pandemic learning loss is not just a California problem, officials released the state data to the public on the same day that results of a different test, nicknamed the Nation’s Report Card, revealed an unprecedented score dive among a sampling of students nationwide.
Gov. Gavin Newsom swiftly issued a press release headlined “California outperforms most states in minimizing learning loss….” Various state officials credited the state’s investments in summer school and other recovery efforts for minimizing the blow to pupils. Yet the national test, in contradiction to the state test, indicated that the achievement gap among students of color widened in California.
Nor will the national comparison data settle a fiery political debate about which school pandemic strategy worked best: Students in California, almost the last to return to in-person learning as the state strove to safeguard public health, fared about as well as students in states such as Florida and Texas who returned to their classrooms much sooner.
“California focused on keeping kids safe during the pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement, “while making record investments to mitigate learning loss and transforming our education system.”
The test upon which the Nation’s Report Card is based is older and was given to only about 4,000 California students, while the state’s Smarter Balanced tests are administered every spring to virtually all Californians in grades three through eight and grade eleven. The states set those tests, prompting some criticism that they encourage “teaching to the test”. The goal of those Smarter Balanced tests: to measure how well students have mastered the state’s Common Core standards.
The initial reluctance of state officials to promptly share the Smarter Balanced test data — and the way they timed and managed today’s release — raised questions about whether elected state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond and others were trying to minimize the impact of bad news landing before voters cast November ballots.
No sooner were the state results made public than Republicans pounced.
“Democrat policies get an F,” Senate GOP leader Scott Wilk of Lancaster declared in a statement. “It is no wonder these scores were kept under lock and key. They are a clear referendum on the failed policies advocated by the governor, legislative leaders, and the state superintendent of public instruction for years – not just during the pandemic. After shuttering schools for the better part of two years, student failure is on steroids.”
In spring of 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the state canceled its testing. In 2021, only one in four eligible students took the tests because not all students were back on campuses. In 2022, nearly all eligible students participated, making these results a key data point for understanding widespread pandemic-triggered learning loss in California.
Education experts say they are optimistic because school funding is at an all-time high, giving educators unprecedented resources to address learning loss. But some are calling for school officials to produce a clearer roadmap to recovery.
“I do think civic leaders owe it to the voters to explain how we’re going to get out of this hole,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at UC Berkeley. “Politicians kept schools closed beyond what occurred in other states.”
There had been concern that the pandemic would completely undercut California’s efforts to close a persistent achievement gap among certain groups of students. The results show that all students and economically disadvantaged students dropped the same 4 percentage points in English language arts, although that leaves economically disadvantaged students lagging their peers, with just 35% meeting standards. The rates for English learners and students with disabilities both dropped less than a single percentage point, from 12.8% to 12.5% and 16% to 15% respectively.
For math, rates for economically disadvantaged students actually dropped slightly less than the average drop for all students, falling 6 percentage points but still resulting in an abysmal 21% meeting standards. English learners went from 13% to 10%. Students with disabilities went from 13% to 11%.
The achievement gap for Black students closed slightly, from a 33 percentage-point difference from their white peers in 2019 to 31 percentage points in 2022. American Indian, Asian and Latino students also saw drops that were largely proportional to that of their white peers. Latino students saw their achievement gap grow in math scores by one percentage point.
When separated by grade level, third-grade students saw the largest drops in both subjects. In 2019, 48.5% of third graders met English language arts standards. Compare that to 42.2% in 2022, a 6.4 percentage-point decline. For math, the rate for third graders meeting standards dropped by 6.7 percentage points.
Megan Bacigalupi is the executive director of CA Parent Power, a parent advocacy group that rallied parents to fight for school reopenings earlier in the pandemic. She said these scores aren’t just the reckoning for prolonged school closures but a wake-up call for parents. California’s test scores were always abysmal, and they couldn’t afford to sink any lower, she said.
“We’re not a state that’s performing well, so for kids to backslide … We were never in a good place,” Bacigalupi said. “What I hope is eye-opening to parents is that, guess what, prior to all this, our kids weren’t doing that well.”
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Despite the alarm caused by these signs of pandemic-era learning loss, experts in California want the state to remain on the path it was on before the public health crisis.
Julien LaFortune is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who specializes in K-12 education finance. He said there was some evidence that the state’s formula for funding public schools was working to close achievement gaps before the pandemic.
The Local Control Funding Formula gives additional money to school districts and charter schools for their English learners, foster children and students from low-income households. Districts with high percentages of students who fall into at least one of these student groups get an additional pot of money called a “concentration grant.”
LaFortune said there was some “strong evidence” showing districts receiving concentration grants were performing better on standardized tests prior to the pandemic. That said, helping those same districts with additional funding might be a faster route to recovery for those districts.
“Maybe that’s how we want to do it, by targeting the concentration grants,” he said.
But LaFortune said there’s no evidence that the state needs to overhaul its formula. It might just take time to get student test scores back to where they were before the pandemic.
“I don’t know if there’s something that needs to be changed imminently,” he said. “The formula does a good job of allocating more funding for high-needs students.”
The state’s funding model also gives districts more control over how they spend their money. Lance Christensen, who’s running against incumbent state superintendent Tony Thurmond, said the state needs to play an even smaller role.
“The state has done enough to destroy our kids’ education,” he said. “I think the state needs fewer education programs and more getting out of the way.”
Richard Barrera, a school board member at San Diego Unified, said the Smarter Balanced results were “really not surprising.” But on top of that, the data isn’t very useful for educators, he said.
While many experts might jump to compare data from 2019 and 2022, Barrera said 2022 doesn’t provide the best baseline because school was still being shaped by the spread of COVID-19. Student and employee absences soared due to high case numbers. He said teachers struggled with disruptive behavior from students readjusting to in-person learning.
Barrera said the current school year will be a more useful point of comparison to pre-pandemic student achievement.
“Our students and educators have just gone through the two most difficult years of their entire experience,” Barrera said. “What was supposed to be the return-to-normal year in 21-22 was anything but a normal year.”
Barrera added that Smarter Balanced scores are just one data point that arrives too late to be useful for classroom teachers. He said mid-year assessments are better at helping teachers keep track of their students’ progress.
Barrera also said educators and education officials have always known what resources are needed to best support students. With the billions of dollars in federal grants going to districts to help them recover from the pandemic, he said educators can finally fund the programs they’ve always needed.
“Pre-pandemic, the money wasn’t there to support those state strategies,” he said. “If we know what the best practices are, we’ve got to make sure we’re providing the resources.”
But this surge of funding won’t last forever. And the recent increases to state education funding might not be enough to make up for the disappearance of the federal money.
Bacigalupi, the parent advocate, said there’s been little explanation to parents when it comes to how districts are spending this money. She said the lack of transparency has been an alarming trend throughout the pandemic, from the rationale behind prolonged school closures, to even the release of these test scores.
“It’s a pattern that parents are very aware of when it comes to public education,” Bacigalupi said.