California student test scores have plummeted, showing the impact of the pandemic

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The California Department of Education today released student test results that show a statewide decline that nearly wiped out the academic gains made since the state overhauled the way it funds education in 2014.

The bottom line, the broadest measure of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student achievement, saw the percentage of California students meeting state math standards fall 7 percentage points to 33%, while the percentage meeting English language arts standards fell 4 percent. points, up to 47%.

Some scores for students of color and students from low-income families fell less sharply than their peers, suggesting that the state’s funding formula, which directs more money to high-needs districts, has worked to soften the blow of the two years of interrupted studies.

Departure how does your school compare.

The results of the Smarter Balanced state test did not surprise officials and experts in the field of education and did not make them feel hopeless.

“It’s useful data, and it’s got everyone talking,” said Li Tsai, a professor of education at UCLA. “Everybody comes up with creative ideas, and they say, let’s go. It’s a quintessentially American ideal.”

As if to prove that the learning loss pandemic isn’t just a California problem, officials released the state’s data to the public on the same day that results from another test, dubbed the National Report Card, found an unprecedented decline in scores among a nationwide sample of students.

Governor Gavin Newsom quickly issued a press release under the headline “California Beats Most States in Minimizing Learning Losses…”. Various state officials credited the state’s investment in summer school and other recovery efforts to minimize the impact on students. However, the national test, unlike the state test, showed that the achievement gap for students of color in California has widened.

Nor will national comparative data resolve the heated political debate over which school pandemic strategy has worked best: Students in California, almost the last to return to full-time education in an effort to protect public health, have fared about as well as students in such states. like Florida and Texas, which returned to their classes much earlier.

While the test on which the National Scorecard is based is older and has been administered to only about 4,000 California students, the Smarter Balanced state tests are administered each spring to nearly all Californians in grades three through eight and eleven. States set these tests, drawing some criticism for encouraging “learning to the test.” The purpose of these Smarter Balanced tests is to measure how well students have mastered the Common Core State Standards.

State officials’ initial reluctance to immediately share data from the Smarter Balanced test — and how they planned and managed today’s release — raised questions about whether public schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond and others were selected trying to minimize the impact of bad news landing before voters vote in November.

In the spring of 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the state canceled his testing. In 2021, only one in four eligible students took the tests because not all students returned to campus. In 2022, nearly all eligible students participated, making the results a key data point for understanding California’s widespread learning loss caused by the pandemic.

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 develop a clearer road map for recovery.

“I really think that public 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 the University of California, Berkeley. “Politicians kept schools closed in addition to what happened in other states.”

There was concern that the pandemic would completely undermine California’s efforts to close the persistent achievement gap among certain groups of students. The results show that both all learners and disadvantaged learners dropped the same 4 percentage points in their English, although as a result, disadvantaged learners lag behind their peers and are only 35% at standard. Rates for English language learners and students with disabilities dropped by less than one percentage point, from 12.8% to 12.5% ​​and from 16% to 15%, respectively.

In math, scores for economically disadvantaged students actually fell slightly less than the average drop for all students, falling 6 percentage points, but still resulting in a staggering 21% meeting the standards. The number of English language learners increased from 13% to 10%. Students with disabilities increased from 13% to 11%.

The achievement gap for black students narrowed slightly, from a 33 percentage point gap with their white peers in 2019 to 31 percentage points in 2022. American Indian, Asian, and Hispanic students also saw declines that were largely proportional to those of their white peers. Latino students saw their math achievement gap widen by one percentage point.

When broken down by grade level, third graders saw the largest decline in both subjects. In 2019, 48.5% of third graders met the standards in English. Compare that to 42.2% in 2022, a decrease of 6.4 percentage points. In mathematics, the level of meeting the standards of third graders decreased 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 reopening at the start of the pandemic. She said the scores are not only payback for extended school closures, but also a wake-up call for parents. California’s test scores have always been terrible, and they couldn’t afford to go any lower, she said.

“We’re not a state that’s doing well, so kids can fall back … We’ve never been in a good place,” Bacigalupi said. “What I hope will open the eyes of parents is that, guess what, our kids weren’t doing well before all of this.”

Despite the alarm raised by these signs of learning loss in the age of a pandemic, experts in California want the state to stay 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 funding. He said there is some evidence that the state’s public school funding formula is working to close achievement gaps before the pandemic.

The Local Control Funding Formula gives extra money to school districts and charter schools for English language learners, foster children and students from low-income families. Districts with a high percentage of students in at least one of these student groups receive an additional amount of money called a “concentration grant.”

LaFortune said there is some “strong evidence” showing that districts receiving concentration grants performed better on standardized tests before the pandemic. However, helping those same areas with additional funding may be a faster way to rebuild those areas.

“Maybe that’s what we want to do, focusing on concentration grants,” he said.

But LaFortune said there is no evidence the state needs to revise its formula. It may take time for student test scores to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“I don’t know if anything needs to be changed in the near future,” he said. “The formula does a good job of providing more funds for high-needs students.”

The state funding model also gives counties more control over how they spend their money. Lance Christensen, who is running for incumbent Tony Thurmond, said the state should play an even smaller role.

“The state has done enough to destroy the education of our children,” he said. “I think the state needs less education programs and more getting out of the way.”

Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified school board member, said the Smarter Balanced results are “not really surprising.” But beyond that, the data isn’t very useful for educators, he said.

While many experts might immediately compare 2019 and 2022 data, Barrera said 2022 is not the best baseline because the school is still being shaped by the impact of the spread of COVID-19. The number of student and staff absences has skyrocketed due to the high caseload. He said teachers struggled with the disruptive behavior of students who adapted to personal learning.

Barrera said the current school year would be a more useful point of comparison with student achievement before the pandemic.

“Our students and faculty have just gone through two of the most difficult years of their entire experience,” Barrera said. “What was supposed to be a year of getting back to normal at 21-22 was not a normal year at all.”

Barrera added that Smarter Balanced scores are just one data point that comes too late to be useful to teachers. Mid-year assessments better help teachers monitor student progress, he said.

Barrera also said that educators and education officials always knew what resources were needed to better support students. Z 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.

“Before the pandemic, there was no money to support these government strategies,” he said. “If we know best practices, we need to make sure we provide the resources.”

But this surge in funding won’t last forever. And recent increases in state education funding may not be enough to make up for the disappearance of federal money.

Bacigalupi, an advocate for parents, said there was little explanation given to parents about how the districts were spending the money. She said the lack of transparency has been a troubling trend throughout the pandemic, from justifying extended school closures to even releasing those test results.

“It’s a pattern that parents are well aware of when it comes to public education,” Bacigalupi said.

Joe Hong and Erica Yee are at CalMatters.

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