CREDIT: Alison Yin / EdSource
Fifth graders take a reading test on Chrome computers at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, June 4, 2014.

Which state do you think has made the most progress on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) since 2009? Answer: California.

Bill Honig

Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource

Bill Honig

Contrary to flat NAEP growth in the rest of the country, California’s average NAEP scores for 4th and 8th-grade reading and 8th-grade math have grown substantially, registering top growth scores nationally from 2009-2017 for 8th-grade reading (first in the nation) and math (tied for second) and 4th grade reading (tied for second).

As an example, 8th-grade reading scores grew 10 points, which is equivalent to a little more than a quarter of a standard deviation or about a gain of half to three-quarters of a year’s worth of instruction. The 8th-grade reading scores are now within two points of the national average. The gains were weakest in 4th-grade math but still increased while many other states’ scores fell. Starting at extremely low levels, the state is now approaching the national averages even though California has the most English learner students, the most diversity and high levels of low-income children compared to other states.

We are looking at the 2009-2017 school years because 2009 was just before the Common Core standards were adopted in California, the administrations of Gov. Jerry Brown and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson started and the state shifted from a primarily “test and punish” philosophy to a more “build and support” approach.

This strategy had widespread political, legislative and educator support, in contrast to the rest of the country, most of which succumbed to federal and state pressure for a harsher approach. Simply put, positive support encourages stronger engagement of teachers and educators which results in improved performance.

Educators and policymakers also committed to a long-term approach of 15-20 years to implement the deeper learning demanded by Common Core and other curriculum standards and were supported in their efforts to stay the course for the long-term. The following eight-year benchmark results are near the half-way point in this effort.

NAEP, sometimes called the nation’s report card, is only one major indication of performance. But since it samples students in the states and thus can’t be used for individual or school accountability, NAEP is not subject to the gaming that plagues annual individual statewide tests. Of course, reading and math scores leave out other important subjects, civic engagement and qualities such as persistence, communication and ability to work with others. Still, they are one important indicator.

In most categories California started to close the gap between black/brown and white/Asian students — unlike the rest of the nation where the gaps increased. Hispanic growth scores increased more than California’s average growth; African-American scores a little less.

California also made substantial jumps in NAEP rankings of average scores adjusted for poverty, language, diversity and special education, based on the Urban Institute’s report:

  • In 8th-grade reading we made huge gains and are now 14th in the country, up from the low 40s as recently as 2013. In 4th-grade reading we are 19th nationally, up from the high 30s in 2015.
  • In math we are 22nd in 8th-grade math, up from the low 40s as recently as 2013. We are 34th in 4th-grade math, up from the low 40s in 2011 and 2015.

Some confirmation of these results is provided by California’s most recent annual Smarter Balanced 11th-grade reading scores. Sixty percent now reach the “proficient” level — a level consistent with 4-year college or A or B+ grade-level work, which compares favorably to the other Smarter Balanced Assessment Coalition, or SBAC, states that are much less diverse. Getting 60 percent of our diverse students to that level is impressive, compares favorably with the highest-performing states and countries and is a tribute to the hard work of our educational practitioners and the correctness of the policy direction. On the other hand, the state is much weaker in Smarter Balanced math performance at 11th grade (although improving) and the other testing grades. Math should continue to be a major area of subsequent improvement efforts.

There are other indicators of success as well.

Students eligible for UC or CSU skyrocketed from 2007 to 2015 (when the latest report was issued). The eligibility rate went from 33 percent to 41 percent of the high-school graduation class — a 24 percent increase in the number of students qualifying. Because of the increases in students eligible for the universities, CSU has recently had to turn away or restrict many qualifying students.

University eligibility rates for students of color also rose substantially. For example, Latino graduates qualifying for CSU during this period increased from 225,000 to 319,000 — a 42 percent jump. Their eligibility rates are now 32 percent. African-American rates rose from 25 percent to 30 percent. As a result the gap between Latino and white students and African-American and white students eligible for admission to our public universities narrowed appreciably.

Students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses increased from 300,000 in 2013 to 370,000 in 2017, a gain of 70,000. Those earning a level three or above (considered successful for college credit) rose from 185,000 to 226,000 or from 33 percent of students to 41 percent. Ethnic group rates also increased. For example, the number of Latino students reaching a 3 or above on the AP test grew from 54,000 to 82,500.

There is no certainty about what caused these remarkable gains, but my candidates are:

  • Widespread policy coherence and educator agreement in the state grounded in a positive build-and-support, empowering approach rather than a more punitive strategy;
  • The slow roll out of the Common Core standards, focused on deeper learning and active classroom instruction with plenty of opportunities for teacher and practitioner buy in and understanding; educators were given the leeway and support for a long-term strategy for implementation.
  • A growing shift at the state and district levels from compliance to collaboration and support;
  • Agreement on the importance of a broad liberal arts curriculum and a willingness to use the highly-respected California curricular frameworks in English language arts/English language development, mathematics, history/social science/civics and science;
  • Putting instruction at the core of improvement efforts including a commitment of local schools and districts to team building and professional development around deeper learning and the continuous improvement of the quality of instruction; and,
  • Finally, and crucially, a shift to local control, which provided significantly more funds, especially for harder-to-educate students. (Even after the substantial increases in school funding, California still spends only half the per-student amount per year as New York does.)

These results are gratifying but California still has a long way to go to provide the educational program our children deserve. We should certainly build on the policies and directions which resulted in these successes as California educators, citizens and leaders continue their efforts to improve the performance of our schools.

•••

Bill Honig was state superintendent of public instruction from 1983-1993 and chair and vice-chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission. He is author of the website www.buildingbetterschools.com.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Zeev Wurman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    This self-congratulatory piece seems based on nimble manipulation and elision of data. Where Bill Honig shows the "successes" of California based on NAEP data, he chose an interesting -- but misleading -- point of comparison: the year 2009. But the real comparison year is 2013, the year when California abandoned its old standards and tests and implemented Common Core and the SBAC test. If we look at Honig's numbers, the 10 points increase in grade 8 reading … Read More

    This self-congratulatory piece seems based on nimble manipulation and elision of data.

    Where Bill Honig shows the “successes” of California based on NAEP data, he chose an interesting — but misleading — point of comparison: the year 2009.

    But the real comparison year is 2013, the year when California abandoned its old standards and tests and implemented Common Core and the SBAC test. If we look at Honig’s numbers, the 10 points increase in grade 8 reading since 2009 is made of of 9 points between 2009 and 2013, and only one(!) point since 2013 — basically flat. The 6 points increase in grade 8 math are similarly made of over 5 points gain between 2009 and 2013 and less than a point since 2013.

    And when he writes “gains were weakest in 4th-grade math but still increased” one should know that the less than 1 point increase since 2009 is made of 2 points increase between 2009 and 2013, and almost two points *decline* since 2013.

    In other words, Honig is “claiming victory” because of the achievement of the previous California standards and curricula, those that he helped to abandon and replace with Common Core that … stifled and reversed California progress.

    Similarly, he brags about the increase in college-readiness of California students. What he doesn’t mention is the fact that much of that readiness is now measured by the new unreliable SBAC tests that *doubled* the supposed college readiness in math *overnight.” If one chooses to believe that statistical impossibility, I have some shares in the Golden Gate bridge to sell him.

    To add insult to injury, CSU now cannot even put those fake “college ready” students in remediation and is *forced* to place them in credit earning classes.

    For a true data-based view of the state of California education under Bill Honig and Mike Kirst, please check
    https://www.hoover.org/research/californias-common-core-mistake

    Replies

    • Paul 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      It's disingenuous to cite an article without disclosing that you wrote it. Talk about "self-congratulatory"! You make much of improved achievement in Algebra I by minority students after adoption of the old California math standards. Correlation is not causation. Other initiatives overlapped, including: • K-3 class size reduction; • Morgan-Hart 9th Grade Class Size Reduction (often used for Grade 9 Algebra, it also inspired local efforts to reduce Grade 8 Algebra class size); • The requirement that math teachers, both … Read More

      It’s disingenuous to cite an article without disclosing that you wrote it. Talk about “self-congratulatory”!

      You make much of improved achievement in Algebra I by minority students after adoption of the old California math standards.

      Correlation is not causation. Other initiatives overlapped, including:

      • K-3 class size reduction;

      • Morgan-Hart 9th Grade Class Size Reduction (often used for Grade 9 Algebra, it also inspired local efforts to reduce Grade 8 Algebra class size);

      • The requirement that math teachers, both new and incumbent, demonstrate subject matter competence (bachelor’s degree, 32-unit subject matter major, passage of the CSET, or equivalent); and

      • The requirement that all teachers, new and incumbent, receive extensive training to teach English Learners.

      (NCLB subject matter competence was a paper requirement for many incumbents, but it had a major effect on subject matter preparation for newcomers. CLAD was decidedly not a paper requirement.)

      Finally, as someone pointed out in response to your comment on the other EdSource article about Kirst’s legacy, wouldn’t it be better to judge whether students are learning math, than to focus on how many attempted Algebra I in the 8th Grade? You replied that the testing apparatus has been dismantled. It’s preposterous to suggest that a system comprising 300,000 teachers, prepared under ever-stricter professional standards, and supervised by professional administrators, doesn’t bother to check whether students learn.

      Statewide standardized test scores were, if anything, a very small piece of evidence in a student’s academic record. In my EdSource comments over the years, I often quoted the old California math framework’s position on testing: that timed, multiple-choice questions were the holy grail. My favorite such question is about “solving” a system of two linear equations. A student who understands nothing of the meaning of a system of equations, and who knows no techniques for solving it, can get a perfect score by substituting each of the possible answers until a match is found. So much for evidence of learning!

      • Zeev Wurman 1 week ago1 week ago

        No, Paul. Linking to one's own published piece is not "disingenuous" – it is common by anyone who publishes. But your other responses are somewhat more interesting. Correlation is indeed not causation, but when all dimensions of math achievement correlate with the pre-Common Core standards, it creates a preponderance of evidence. There is almost never "proof" in social sciences. Bill Honing claims "victory" without causation above too, yet in his case he needed even to "fake" the … Read More

        No, Paul. Linking to one’s own published piece is not “disingenuous” – it is common by anyone who publishes.

        But your other responses are somewhat more interesting.

        Correlation is indeed not causation, but when all dimensions of math achievement correlate with the pre-Common Core standards, it creates a preponderance of evidence. There is almost never “proof” in social sciences. Bill Honing claims “victory” without causation above too, yet in his case he needed even to “fake” the correlation, taking credit for pre-Common Core period.

        – K-3 class size reduction occurred mostly in early 2000s and largely dissipated by late 2000s.

        – The more intensive teacher PD and certification (CSET) may have contributed but they were largely done based on those pre-Common Core standards (only the last 3-4 years are starting to be based on Common Core, so the effects, if any, may actually contribute to the recent dips in achievement).

        – ELL are actually faring much worse under Common Core than before. I will elaborate on this in another paper soon.

        As to comparing the actual achievement rather than enrollment in Algebra 1, that is precisely what my linked paper does, so you should try to read it. In pre-Common Core years not only the enrollment grew, but the success rate grew in tandem, and these successes translated to higher achievement on advanced math courses. Since Common Core California does not track the achievement, and the enrollment data comes from NAEP, not from California testing. So you complain about lack of Common Core Algebra achievement data, which California abolished during Common Core? Nice! Reminds me of the definition of Hutzpah — killing one’s parents and asking for leniency as an orphan.

        Preposterous? It is preposterous to think that “300,000” teachers use validated, uniform, and reliable scores on their own, without uniform state assessment. Yet SBAC is the test Mike Kirst and Bill Honig chose over the other Common Core test (PARCC), and SBAC has no end-of-course tests.

        You may complain about the old test being imperfect, but there is nothing to complain about now – there are no end-of-course tests at all.

        Thank you, Mike Kirst and Bill Honig!

    • Lori Freeman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Nailed it!!! Thank you!