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California 2013 Kids Count education profile. Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation

The trend is upward, but improvements in student achievement in California in the last eight years have been modest, with large numbers of students still lacking grade-level proficiency in math and reading, according to the annual Kids Count Data Book by the non-profit Annie E. Casey Foundation.

California bumped up in its overall ranking in education to 39th in the nation, compared to 43rd in 2012, based on four indicators: preschool attendance, fourth graders’ reading proficiency, eighth graders’ math proficiency and high school students who graduate on time.

Preschool attendance is increasing modestly, according to the report. In 2011, 53 percent of children ages three or four did not attend preschool, compared with 55 percent of that same age group who did not attend in 2005. High-quality pre-kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds can improve school readiness, with the greatest gains accruing to the highest-risk children, the report stated.

Some positive trends were seen in measures of academic achievement, with decreasing numbers of students at “below basic” levels of math and reading and increasing numbers of students rated “at or above proficient.” But despite the improvements, 75 percent of fourth graders were tested not proficient in grade-level reading and 75 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in grade-level math, according to the report, which used data from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The most striking change occurred in the percentage of high school students not graduating on time. Those rates dropped to 22 percent in 2009 from 31 percent in 2005, the report found.

Spending on education in California continues to lag the national spending rates, and the report’s findings reveal the consequences, advocates said.

“California’s leaders aren’t giving enough attention to the fundamental issues undermining our children’s – and our state’s – success,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an advocacy group. “It’s a mis-prioritization problem. While our state ranks 11th nationally in per capita state and local tax revenues, we are well below the national average in per capita spending on education but second in per capita spending on corrections (and) prisons.”

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