Quotes in this story have been updated.
More California students are meeting achievement targets in math and English language arts compared to last year, according to standardized test results released Wednesday.
In spring 2015, students took the new Smarter Balanced tests, which are aligned to more rigorous Common Core standards, for the first time. In spring 2016, the percentage of students who met the targets increased at every grade level and in every student subgroup, the new results show.
The much-anticipated results were met with some relief by education leaders, who were hoping that this year’s scores would be better than last year’s. Last year’s results were intended to set a baseline by which school and district performance could be measured going forward.
“The higher test scores show that the dedication, hard work and patience of California’s teachers, parents, school employees and administrators are paying off,” said Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction. “Together we are making progress towards upgrading our education system to prepare all students for careers and college in the 21st century.”
Scores fall within one of four achievement levels tied to the Common Core: “standard not met,” “standard nearly met,” “standard met” and “standard exceeded.” (See what each level means.)
Forty-nine percent of students in grades 3-8 and 11 met or exceeded standards in English language arts and literacy, up 5 percentage points from 2015. In math, 37 percent of students met or exceeded standards, up 4 percentage points from the year before. However, these results also showed that in both subject areas, more than half of students tested failed to meet those targets.
“Of course there’s more work to do, but our system has momentum,” Torlakson said. “I am confident that business, political and community leaders will join parents and educators to help continue supporting increased standards and resources for schools.”
The results also revealed wide disparities in achievement among student groups, with 62 percent of English language learners, 44 percent of African-Americans, 38 percent of low-income students and 36 percent of Hispanic students scoring in the lowest of the four achievement levels. This compared with 16 percent of white students and 11 percent of Asian students who scored in the lowest level. Still, these subgroups all saw gains of between 2 and 4 percentage points in meeting or exceeding standards, the results showed.
The tests make up the main component of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress system, known as CAASPP.
More than 3.2 million California students took the tests, but more than 22,300 opted out with parental consent, representing less than 1 percent of students.
Although many districts were pleased with their growth, California School Boards Association President Chris Ungar called the results “mixed” and issued a warning about “alarming” low overall results and persistent gaps in achievement.
“If we are to close the achievement gap and create a public school system that offers consistently high levels of education, we need to be focused much more intentionally on questions of equity and questions of adequacy,” he said, in a prepared statement. “It goes beyond test scores – we must give districts and schools the level of resources, innovation and flexibility required to devise solutions that meet the needs of their specific student populations.”
The assessments, which are given online, require students to write short answers to questions, read passages and think critically about them, and use problem-solving skills.
The tests are adaptive, meaning they change depending on how a student answers a question. If a student answers a question correctly, the next one is more difficult. If a student answers incorrectly, the next question is easier.
In 11th grade, 59 percent of students met or exceeded the standard in English language arts, compared with 33 percent who did so in math. This represented growth of 3 percentage points in English language arts and 4 percentage points in math.
Most community colleges and the California State University system use the “standard exceeded” level to determine that students are ready for college and do not need to take remedial courses. The “standard met” level indicates that students are conditionally ready for college, but must take an approved yearlong math and/or English course their senior year and pass with a C or better. The Smarter Balanced 11th grade test replaces the state’s previous Early Assessment Program.
“These positive results are based on a new college and career readiness assessment that is online, and expects students to demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving skills unlike the old, multiple choice tests they replace,” said State Board of Education President Mike Kirst.
James Popham, a UCLA emeritus professor and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said the rise in scores is not surprising.
“In general, whenever you start a new test and people are getting used to what it measures,” he said, “you do see an increase in the second year.”
However, he said it was impossible to anticipate what would be regarded as a typical percentage point increase. He also said the fact that so many students failed to meet standards could be expected in the early years of the administration of a test, especially a more rigorous one like Smarter Balanced.
“This is a test measuring what many people think represents more challenging, difficult types of content,” he said, “so it would not be surprising.”
Regarding the achievement gap, Popham said it makes sense to spend money in ways that will help struggling students.
“You have a new test and you have hope that students will master what’s in the new test,” he said. “Clearly, what you need to do is put in sufficient resources, so if you do a good job on instruction, scores will in fact rise.”
The amount of time it will take for large percentages of students to meet achievement targets, he said, is directly related to the difficulty level of what they are learning.
“The more challenging and the more demanding the standards,” he said, “the longer it will take to really get them mastered.”
Torlakson suggested that several factors may have contributed to this year’s higher scores. These included another year of teaching the standards, students’ increased familiarity with the online tests, technology improvements, and the use of interim tests to gauge student progress and help prepare them for the end-of-year assessments.
However, he said many schools and districts are still transitioning to the new standards and continued persistence will contribute to ongoing improvement.
Still, some districts and charter organizations were pleased with their progress. Both the Fresno and Garden Grove districts saw students at every grade level make gains in both subject areas, with Fresno’s growing by 4 percentage points overall in English language arts and math, while Garden Grove’s scores increased by 6 percentage points in both areas.
Fresno Superintendent Michael Hanson acknowledged that his district still has a lot of work to do, with only 22 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in math and 31 percent meeting or exceeding them in English language arts. But he was quick to celebrate the gains made by district students, especially in 3rd- and 4th-grade math, which grew by 8 and 6 percentage points, respectively.
“Our growth is good and strong,” he said. “We like it. I think people realize that these standards, if used as intended, give teachers great latitude to be creative and challenge the heck out of kids. And that comes with great pressure. So, we’re trying to come beside teachers and support them as best we know how.”
Garden Grove Superintendent Gabriela Mafi said that of districts with 65 percent of students or higher receiving free or reduced price lunches, hers had the highest percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards, with 55 percent of students doing so in English language arts and 43 percent of district students achieving those goals in math.
“Our teachers and administrators have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to implementing the state standards in a meaningful way that results in tremendous academic gains for our students,” she said. “We have placed a strategic emphasis on equipping every student with the academic and personal skills needed for lifelong success and have offered targeted support to students.”