What’s the California picture?

Massive and diverse, California struggles with formidable income disparities and complex demographics that don’t stop at its public school system. When former Gov. Jerry Brown took office after the last recession, he overhauled school finance policy to make decisions more local, and to steer more state resources to disadvantaged kids. 

The state also adopted Common Core learning standards; a tougher standardized exam to measure growth in achievement; and an accountability system that gives schools not a one-dimensional grade, but a color-coded, report card-style dashboard that judges them based on multiple data points.

Since California students began taking the new standardized exam — known as “Smarter Balanced” — statewide reading and math scores have inched up an average of about 1 percentage point each year for the past five years. 

In 2019, about 51% of students who took the exam — administered to high-school juniors and students in grades 3-8 — had mastered the state’s reading standards. In math, about 40% of students who took the exam earned a passing score.