Smarter Balanced test scores for all California student subgroups nudged upward this year, in tandem with average statewide gains in math and English language arts. But parallel progress won’t narrow the wide disparities in achievement between low-income and Hispanic students and their white, Asian and wealthier classmates. And for African-American students and for English learners, the achievement gap slightly widened, according to results that the Department of Education released on Wednesday.

“One year does not make a trend but some student groups with slowest progress are the ones needing to make the most progress,” said Carrie Hahnel, deputy director of Education Trust-West. “English language learners barely moved; African- Americans were the slowest progressing in math.”

The Smarter Balanced tests have revealed wide gaps in subgroup scores that education analysts said reflect the challenges of online tests and the rigors of the Common Core standards that they assess. Those standards require more writing and with math, more verbal skills: students’ ability to explain how they got their answers. Advocates of the Common Core say, and many teachers agree, that they more accurately measure skills that high school students heading to college or the workplace will need.

While 72 percent of Asian students (up 3 percentage points from last year) and 53 percent of white students (up 4 percentage points) met or exceeded standards in math, the definition of proficiency, only 18 percent of African-American students (up 2 percentage points) and 24 percent of Hispanic students (up 3 percentage points) scored proficient.

Proficiency rates were even lower for other groups: 12 percent of English learners (up 1 percentage point); 11 percent of students with disabilities (up 2 percentage points) and 23 percent of low-income students (up 2 percentage points). English learners are a special case, though, since those who pass an assessment showing they have become proficient in English subsequently are no longer classified as English learners. As a result, English learners’ test results, particularly in English language arts, will tend to lag other subgroups, complicating yearly comparisons.

The disparities are wide in English language arts as well. This year the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards by subgroup were:

  • Asian students: 76 percent, up 5 percentage points;
  • White students: 64 percent, up 3 percentage points;
  • Hispanic students: 37 percent, up 5 percentage points;
  • African-American students: 31 percent, up 3 percentage points;
  • Low-income students: 35 percent, up 4 percentage points;
  • Students with disabilities: 14 percent, up 2 percentage points;
  • English learners, a category that does not include former English learners who tested proficient in English: 13 percent, up 2 percentage points.

There also is a gender gap in English language arts: 54 percent of girls scored proficient, up 5 percentage points, compared with 42 percent of boys, up 4 percentage points. Boys and girls had identical scores in math: 37 percent, up 3 percentage points.

“Even as they applaud the gains, our state leaders should formally renew our state’s commitment to focusing on the academic needs of our underserved students and closing these gaps,” said Arun Ramanathan, CEO of Pivot Learning Partners, a nonprofit that works with districts to improve learning. “The data also clearly shows where we haven’t focused enough attention, specifically on the needs of our low- income students, English Learners and students with disabilities. For such a diverse state, these achievement gaps are simply inexcusable.”

The state has taken actions that are intended to narrow disparities. It has adopted English language development standards for English learners that are aligned with the Common Core – an important step to help English learners master academic content while they learn English. And, under the Local Control Funding Formula, districts receive additional dollars for each English learner, low-income, homeless and foster child they enroll: 20 percent per student and more dollars in districts with large concentrations of high-needs students. Districts are required to spend these “supplemental and concentration” dollars increasing and improving programs and services for the students who attract the money.

How long should it take for these resources to translate into higher scores? “I’m not sure,” said Hahnel, “but there should be more urgency to focus on the neediest kids.”

Education Trust-West plans to do an analysis of districts’ and schools’ Smarter Balanced results to identify those that excelled and then speak with principals about what they did to achieve the results.

San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest district, may be one district on the radar. With English learners and low-income students making up two-thirds of its enrollment, 57 percent of its students scored proficient in English language arts and 45 percent scored proficient in math, 8 percentage points higher than the state average.

While the gaps in scores between low-income and non-low-income students is wide – 30 percentage points difference in English language arts and 22 points in math – San Diego Unified narrowed the difference significantly this year. Gains in proficiency for low-income students were 8 percentage points in English language arts and 5 percentage points in math, twice the statewide rate of improvement for those students. African-American students made a similar gain, 9 percentage points in English language arts, though the gap between them and white students is still 38 percentage points. The gain was 3 percentage points in math, one point less than for white students, leaving a 44 percentage point gap.

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  1. Andy 12 months ago12 months ago

    After all these initiatives to close the achievement gap, we're back at square one. We've tried Republican initiatives (NCLB), Democratic initiatives (Race to the Top), and ones initiated here in California (LCFF). Lots of schools that have promising results have been studied, but when implemented across districts, the results can't be replicated. Although we should study what San Diego is doing, color me skeptical about if it can be duplicated across the state. Although sometimes … Read More

    After all these initiatives to close the achievement gap, we’re back at square one. We’ve tried Republican initiatives (NCLB), Democratic initiatives (Race to the Top), and ones initiated here in California (LCFF). Lots of schools that have promising results have been studied, but when implemented across districts, the results can’t be replicated. Although we should study what San Diego is doing, color me skeptical about if it can be duplicated across the state. Although sometimes funding is an issue, and teachers can be an issue, we know that they are not major factors in closing the achievement gap (Asians in high poverty, underfunded schools still perform very well). At this point, after billions have been spent, I think we need to rethink the issue. The only thing that has been shown to consistently improve scores is integrating under-performing groups with higher performing groups. We also need to revisit how family expectations play a role. More money and resources is not going to solve the problem.

  2. Roger L Grotewold 12 months ago12 months ago

    John Fensterwald, how about weighing in on this subject. You have written an informative article and it would serve us all well, if you could offer an opinion or judgment, regarding the positive improvement in the scores. Why are they improving and how can we continue this upward trend, in your judgment, John?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 12 months ago12 months ago

      Thanks, Roger, but I have no judgment because, as Carrie Hahnel noted, one year does not make a trend. Doug McRae went back to look at STAR results and found that the average gain over the years was 2.28 percentage points, but in the second year of the test, it was 3.95 percent so it is not uncommon to find a bigger than average gain the year after the test is first administered. At first … Read More

      Thanks, Roger, but I have no judgment because, as Carrie Hahnel noted, one year does not make a trend. Doug McRae went back to look at STAR results and found that the average gain over the years was 2.28 percentage points, but in the second year of the test, it was 3.95 percent so it is not uncommon to find a bigger than average gain the year after the test is first administered.

      At first glance it appears that the districts that scored the highest were the same ones that excelled with the STAR tests, with the same demographics. No surprise, really. But over the next few months, we’ll be seeing articles and, I hope, good research on schools that did much better than average. I was curious about San Diego Unified but never got a call back. Common Core continues to have the widespread support of most teachers, based on surveys and anecdotal evidence, but teachers need more support, good texts and time to reflect. Nothing new but needs repeating.

  3. Jeff 12 months ago12 months ago

    The gaps are worse if you measure them as the percentage improvement in the share of students that weren’t meeting or exceeding the standards previously rather than the change of the group as a whole. Asians previously had 29 percentage who had not meet the standard; that was reduced to 24% – a 17.25% improvement (reduction) in the share not meeting the standard. 68% of Hispanics previously had not met standard; that was … Read More

    The gaps are worse if you measure them as the percentage improvement in the share of students that weren’t meeting or exceeding the standards previously rather than the change of the group as a whole.
    Asians previously had 29 percentage who had not meet the standard; that was reduced to 24% – a 17.25% improvement (reduction) in the share not meeting the standard. 68% of Hispanics previously had not met standard; that was lowered to 63% – just under 7.36% improvement in the share not meeting the standard.

  4. Floyd Thursby 12 months ago12 months ago

    Motivation is key. Low income rural whites are not doing well, but those in cities and suburbs have more resources. The Vergara case shows as a society we care more about adult interest groups than closing the gap. We need to focus on hours studied per week. Low income Asians do better than all other groups among those who are not low income. Low income whites do worse than non-low income … Read More

    Motivation is key. Low income rural whites are not doing well, but those in cities and suburbs have more resources. The Vergara case shows as a society we care more about adult interest groups than closing the gap. We need to focus on hours studied per week.
    Low income Asians do better than all other groups among those who are not low income. Low income whites do worse than non-low income black and Latino students. However, they do better when in the same income range. We need more parent education and we need to agree as a society to push the idea that every child must read and study 15-20 hours a week, that studying must be a higher priority than anything else. We also need to provide free tutors for low income kids.

  5. Paul Muench 12 months ago12 months ago

    Let’s see where things are 4 years from now. Assuming the additional school funding continues we’ll have a much better idea of its impact.

  6. Roger L Grotewold 12 months ago12 months ago

    It seems obvious from reading this article, that some serious observation and research into what is happening in San Diego Unified needs to be done right away. The teaching methodology that is being used in San Diego seems to be working better than in other parts of the state. How can we find out and implement these methods that indicate this positive improvement? We need to find this out and in my judgment, … Read More

    It seems obvious from reading this article, that some serious observation and research into what is happening in San Diego Unified needs to be done right away. The teaching methodology that is being used in San Diego seems to be working better than in other parts of the state. How can we find out and implement these methods that indicate this positive improvement? We need to find this out and in my judgment, institute these methods in other school districts throughout the state of California.