When the new Smarter Balanced test scores (part of California’s new assessment system known as CAASPP) came out last month, Californians engaged in what is now a time-honored routine — noting that scores inched up but large equity gaps remain.
Differentials by race, ethnicity, income, language background and disability status have become a common feature of the landscape, like our dry riverbeds and brush fires in the summertime — worrisome but not really viewed as solvable.
Thus, we typically have a “Home Alone” moment when we register wide-eyed shock as test score gaps are announced and then go about our business for another year without a purposeful analysis and determination to change the status quo.
We believe it is important to dive into the data and take stock of what we can learn in order to identify the implications for educational improvement in the state and think carefully about next steps. This takes some doing, however. The state currently reports trends in terms of the proportion of students who “meet the standard,” a cut point set for each grade level, but does not focus on trends in the actual scores the students receive. (These scores are on a scale from 2000 to 3000 on the tests.) Users must go into the data set to calculate these trends themselves across test areas, years, and student subgroups.
Analyzing these trends in actual scores is especially important for understanding the performance of groups scoring well below or well above the “standards met” cut point used for reporting the data.
The Learning Policy Institute looked more closely at these data, tallying scale scores for student subgroups for each year while weighting scores from each grade level and year by the number of test takers to measure how much “growth” this year’s test scores showed compared to last year. We found some surprises offering both good news and bad news — and some clear indicators of where the state needs to dig in and work harder.
First the bad news: As the graphs below show, students with disabilities score low and show little growth. And many historically underserved racial/ethnic groups score well below white and Asian students and are gaining less rapidly, which contributes to a widening achievement gap. This includes African-American students, where the news is the worst, followed by Native American and Pacific Islander students.
And all of the news is worse in mathematics than in English language arts where both average scores and average growth are lower overall and for each group.
Gains for Latino students, however, were much stronger than for other groups, and in English language arts they slightly surpassed the gains for white students. The gap also narrowed for economically disadvantaged students in relation to non-economically disadvantaged students in English language arts, although a substantial gap remains. Filipino students had by far the largest gains of any group and outscored white students in both English language arts and mathematics. Asian students had the highest scores in both subjects and also experienced very strong gains.
These gains for many Latino, Filipino and Asian students were part of an untold success story for California, which is the progress of most English learners over the course of their school careers.
While students currently classified as English learners score low in both English language arts and math, this is in large part because students are no longer counted in the English learner (EL) group as soon as they become reclassified as proficient. (Unlike the system for federal accountability reporting, in this state report, students do not remain in the EL category for several years after they are reclassified.) This catch-22 makes it impossible for the EL group as a whole to show much gain in achievement, even when individual learners are making strong progress. More importantly, as students progress through California schools, the vast majority are being reclassified as English proficient.
When the current 11th graders were in 3rd grade, for example, nearly 150,000 students were classified as English learners. Eight years later, by 11th grade, only about 47,000 students were so classified. By 11th grade, over 125,000 students have been reclassified as English proficient (as compared to only about 60,000 students when this cohort was in 3rd grade.) Even more impressive is the fact that students who are reclassified as fluent English proficient outperform native English speakers in both English language arts and math. Other students from homes where English is not the first language but who were initially fluent English proficient (IFEP) when they entered the school system outperform all other students and continue to make gains at a very high rate. (The IFEP students are likely to be students from more educated and affluent families.)
These data are a testament to the capacity of California schools to help many students acquire the English language and achieve at high levels. The state must still be concerned, of course, about the high school students who are not yet proficient in English — about ¼ of those who were ever English learners. Some of these are recent immigrants, but others have been struggling to become proficient over a longer period of time. The state should monitor growth for these long-time ELs in particular and flag districts where progress is not being made, so that they can get assistance to improve program design and instruction.
But what about the areas where California is failing to close the achievement gap and where students are falling further and further behind? Here we have to take a long hard look at the issues that must be put more forcefully on the policy agenda in California.
- First, the status of special education must be improved. California has lagged dreadfully behind other states in the quality of services and outcomes, with fewer students in mainstream classes, lower achievement and graduation rates, and huge numbers of teachers underprepared relative to other states and to California’s own recently low standards. Because of severe shortages, half of the new entrants to special education teaching in recent years had not completed even a short program of preparation, lacking student teaching and coursework needed to help them do their jobs well. That special education is a five alarm fire in California was acknowledged by the recent state Task Force on Special Education, which laid out a compelling vision for reform. And the California Teacher Credentialing Commission has started work on improving preparation for both general education teachers and specialists who teach these students. But much work needs to be done to realize that vision, beginning with service scholarships and program investments to help candidates become well-trained for their positions, and continuing with new approaches to funding and organizing special education programs.
- Shortages of teachers are also part of the problem California faces with respect to mathematics achievement, especially in the districts with concentrations of students in poverty that have still not caught up to the spending and salary levels of wealthier districts and have a much harder time competing in the labor market for teachers. Severe shortages of teachers in math, science and special education hit many districts last year and have grown worse in many districts this year. Without inducements like the APLE loans, Cal T grants, Governors fellowships and National Board stipends used in past eras of shortage, the California Teacher Credentialing Commission found itself issuing more than 7,700 substandard credentials and permits last year to fill shortages — more than 1/3 of the total credentials issued — and will be called on to issue even more this year. Each of these actions means putting an underprepared teacher or substitute who lacks knowledge of content and/or teaching strategies in front of students. As has been the case historically, most of these students are low-income students of color in high-need districts, including those falling further and further behind.
- Finally, we need to acknowledge that for all of the progress associated with the very progressive Local Control Funding Formula — including efforts to direct funds to the schools where those with greater needs are served — most districts have still not recovered the revenues they lost during the years of severe budget cuts. Furthermore, the urban school districts serving most of the state’s African American student population have the greatest ground to make up, as most spent below the state average under the state’s old funding formula even though they served students with the greatest need. These districts need to rebuild staffing, invest in curriculum, technology and professional development and turn around a curriculum that was focused on low-level skills under the old tests that were tied to hard-edged sanctions. (Many Latino students are also served in these districts, but Latinos are more widely spread across a variety of districts in the state.) In addition, unequal allocations of resources within many districts have historically disadvantaged schools serving African-American students — and this also needs attention as we take seriously the idea that Black Minds Matter, along with those of all other groups of students.
In sum, a closer look at this year’s CAASPP scores reveals some surprising areas of progress, including above average achievement for reclassified English learners — who represent the vast majority of those who began as English learners and who now outscore English-only students in English language arts and mathematics — as well as a narrowing socioeconomic test-score gaps in English language arts. The data also illuminate substantial and widening gaps for other groups, with African-American students and students with disabilities doing especially poorly. Finally, most students are making less progress in mathematics than in English language arts.
To solve these issues, California must improve the quality of special education services; eliminate teacher shortages in special education and math, as well as other fields; and increase the adequacy and equity of school funding. As with our drought, the longer it takes to put a full range of solutions in place, the more achievement gaps will create lasting damage. This year we hope not to let the test score headlines come and go without taking stock that can lead to action.
Linda Darling-Hammond is president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute. Leib Sutcher is research associate and a member of LPI’s Educator Quality Team.
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