Higher test scores, yes, but no narrowing of achievement gaps in California

August 24, 2016
smarter balanced test, CAASPP, SBAC

Long Beach Millikan High students reviewed SAT problems during a classroom exercise last year.

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:

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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