California students among worst performers on national assessment of reading and math

November 7, 2013
A sample question from the 4th grade math test. Credit:

A sample question from the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 4th grade math test. Credit:

California students performed about the same in reading and math on this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress as they did in 2011, ranking among the 10 lowest performing states in the country.

Results from this year’s assessment show that only 33 percent of California 4th grade students and 28 percent of 8th graders are proficient or better in math. In reading, 27 percent of 4th graders and 29 percent of  8th graders are proficient or better.

Explore how California students performed on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The national assessment is delivered to a representative sample of children in all 50 states and the District of Columbia every other year; the skills tested and form of the test differ from California’s standardized tests.

Overall, California students continue to rank near the bottom on the national assessment: Fourth graders scored 46th in the nation in math, and 47th in the nation in reading; eighth graders ranked 43rd in the nation in math and 42nd in reading.

Student scores did not change significantly from two years ago in any area except 8th grade reading, where students made a 7 point gain – the largest in the country.

California was one of 13 states, the Department of Defense schools and the District of Columbia, that made gains in 8th grade reading between 2011 and 2013. Source:

“These scores are another sign that we are moving in the right direction to prepare students for college and career, but we still have a lot of work to do to make sure every student graduates equipped to succeed,” California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in the statement.

The department declined to comment further on the mostly flat performance of California students on the national test.

Students in all 50 states, including California, have improved steadily, if slowly, in math and reading since the test was first administered in 1970. That improvement holds true across ethnic groups, though a gap in performance between white students and their black and Hispanic peers has persisted. The gap between white and black students in California continues to mirror the national gap, while the gap between white and Latino students is slightly larger in California than in other states on all measures except 8th grade reading.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the disparity between the performance of white students and students of color “extremely concerning” in a news conference on the new test data Wednesday. The solution, he said, is expanded public programs for young children as proposed by President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address.

In the seven months since the national assessment was administered here, California has adopted two major policy changes in school funding and curriculum. State money will now be distributed to school districts according to a Local Control Funding Formula that provides extra funding for low-income students and students still learning English. And the state’s academic standards have been replaced with the new national Common Core standards, which require teachers to go into greater depth in the subjects they teach.

Read EdSource’s short guide to California’s new Local Control Funding Formula for schools.

Champions of the new policies are hopeful that they will lead to an uptick in student performance on the national assessment in coming years, said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a non-partisan research center based at Stanford University, the University of California – Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.

“Those of us who are supportive of (the new funding formula, known as) LCFF, and additional flexibility for local decision makers are optimistic that those changes will allow local educators to adapt their programs to the needs of their own students and that will lead to better circumstances for their own students,” Plank said.

As the Common Core curriculum rolls out, there has been speculation that student scores on the new standardized tests, meant to assess students on the new standards, will be worse than they were on the old STAR tests, which were based on the now defunct California state standards. Plank said that might happen because the test is changing, not because the curriculum is changing, and he does not expect to see a dip in performance on the national assessment.

In fact, Plank said, the National Assessment of Educational Progress will be the only consistent measure of student performance delivered before and after the major policy changes now being implemented. Progress will likely continue to be slow and steady, he said.

“It’s unrealistic to expect dramatic changes and probably needless to worry about dramatic deterioration” on the next national test, which will be administered in 2015, Plank said.

Plank does expect to see improvement in student performance in 2015 and hopes to see performance gains accelerate over time. How big those gains might be depends entirely on how well the new policies are implemented, he said.

“At this point, I’m optimistic,” Plank said. “We’ve made changes that should lead to significant improvement in student performance but there are way too many variables in between for us to make strong judgments about that.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

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