Led by strong scores in 8th-grade reading, California moved closer to the national averages in reading and math, continuing a decade-plus trend of generally slow but steady improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The closely watched assessment released its 2017 results for 4th and 8th grades on Tuesday.
California was one of seven states with a 4-point increase in 8th-grade reading, enabling it to come within 3 points of the national average on a 500-point scale. In 2007, it was 10 points below the average of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The results show it moved to nearly 5 points in 8th-grade math and about 5 points in 4th-grade reading, having halved the distance from average in the past decade in both tests.
The nation’s 1-point gain in 8th-grade reading was the only increase, though small, in the 2017 assessments. California progressed slightly in 4th-grade reading and in 8th-grade math since 2013, while the national average has stood still or dropped slightly.
In 4th-grade math there has there been no progress in California or the nation. Since 2005, the average nationally and in California has stagnated. California continues to lag the national average.
Administered every two years since 1969 by the National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP offers an independent and reliable measure of student performance over time. It’s administered to a random sample of students with each student assigned only a small number of the questions, because the goal is to get a snapshot of student progress based on where they live and their racial and socio-economic backgrounds. In California, 6,100 students each in 4th and 8th grades from 280 schools took the test. NAEP, often called the Nation’s Report Card, enables cross-state comparisons because the questions are not tied to any state or group of states’ academic standards. Experts create the questions based on what they believe students should know at various grade levels.
Scores for 27 large, urban districts, including Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego, are reported separately. This year, San Diego’s 6 point increase in 4th-grade reading was the most among those districts in 2017, and for the first time San Diego exceeded the national score — by a point. A decade ago, it was 12 points below the national average. A point or two variation each year is usually not statistically significant. Six points is considered unusually large.
In 8th-grade reading, Los Angeles continued seven straight years of increases. San Diego and Fresno were second and third among urban districts with the biggest gains in 4th-grade math.
The three California districts “did consistently better at a time when many urban districts that were tested showed declines,” said Linda Darling Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization in Palo Alto. “They were not carried along by a surge across the country. This is good news for California.”
Lagging the nation
Despite improvement, California had a long way to go to catch up and has performed in the bottom tier of states for decades. That’s still the case. For example, only Washington, D.C. and four states — New Mexico, Alabama, Louisiana and North Dakota — scored below California in 4th-grade math. Alabama and Nevada had the same score as California. In 8th-grade math, nine states fared worse than California while Alaska, Hawaii and Rhode Island had the same score. California’s strong performance ranking on 8th grade reading in 2017 raised its state ranking from 44th to 37th.
Demographics is one factor for California’s lower scores. The state has more students who historically have scored low. California has the most English learners of any state in the nation, by far: 27 percent of 4th-graders, compared with 12 percent for the nation as a whole. California also has proportionally more low-income students and its ethnic and racial makeup is different with more Hispanic students and fewer white students (see graphic below).
But demographic differences are only part of the story. On tests in both math and reading in both grades, nearly every student group in California performed worse than their counterparts nationwide.
In 4th-grade math in 2017, 51 percent of white students, 26 percent of Hispanics and 19 percent of black students nationwide scored proficient, the level that indicates a solid mastery of the work. In California, each of those groups scored between 4 and 7 percentage points lower than their counterparts in other states.
Nationwide, 14 percent of English learners scored proficient and 47 percent scored below basic — a dismal proportion but better than in California, where 9 percent were proficient and 53 percent were below basic.
Only in 8th-grade reading did two student groups in California score higher than their peers nationwide: whites and well-off students — those not qualifying for the lunch program.
The latest NAEP results confirm the persistent achievement gaps among student ethnic and racial groups that other performance indicators, like the Smarter Balanced state assessment given in California, have revealed. But, with a few exceptions, the disparities have narrowed nationwide and in California during the past 25 years.
The nationwide average score of white students in 4th-grade reading in 2017 was 232. The average score for black students was 206 and for Hispanics, 209, which is categorized as below basic level, signifying partial mastery of skills. But since the low point in 1994, scores of black and Hispanic students nationwide have risen significantly faster than for whites. Asian-Pacific Islander students, the top scoring group, also have risen steadily and soared in the last two tests.
At the same time, however, the nationwide gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers has remained wide and unchanged in 4th-grade reading since 2002-03.
In California, the 27-point gap in average 4th-grade reading scores between whites and Hispanics in 2017 is among the biggest in the nation. However, the gap in California has narrowed by a third since 1992.
But the white-black gap in 4th-grade reading has widened 5 points since 2007. And the 38-point gap between those two groups in 8th-grade math, the same as it was in 1990, is the 4th-largest among states.
“Appalling” was the reaction of Ryan Smith, executive director of the Eduation-Trust West, which advocates for minority and low-income students. “At a time when California is claiming to lead on issues of what’s right in our country, we should see black students improve at far greater rates, not sliding back decades,” he said.
But there was also some good news: a promising narrowing of gaps in scores between whites and Hispanics and white and blacks in 4th grade math, he said. These are students, he said, who have been exposed to Common Core since entering school. Speculating on the connection, he said, “This is a sign that standards are helping to move the needle in the early grades.”
Cherry picking results
People tend to read NAEP scores like a Rorschach Test; they speculate on the causes of yearly changes based on their own assumptions of what drives success in education. Researchers warn against this, because many variables are always at play and one year doesn’t constitute a trend.
“NAEP is not built for causal inferencing,” Tom Loveless, an independent education consultant formerly with the Brookings Institution, said in a pre-release web conference last week. He cautioned against “cherry picking” the results to support assumptions.
California schools have experienced major changes in the past decade: adoption of the Common Core standards in math and English language arts and new standards for English learners, along with new assessments, the passage of a new school financing system in 2013 and the rollout of a new school and district accountability system.
Common Core supporters will point to the rise in reading scores in 2017 — nearly 3 points in 4th grade, about 4 points in 8th — to argue that teachers are using better materials and have become more skilled in teaching the new standards. Detractors will point to flat or slightly declining scores in the past two NAEP tests, preceded by big pre-Common Core increases in 2009 and 2011, as evidence Common Core was a mistake.
But Matt Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Program, says it would be premature to make a judgment on Common Core. “Given significant variation in Common Core implementation across states, I don’t think the overall trend in NAEP math scores can be associated with Common Core,” he wrote in an email. “I imagine that will be a more useful exercise as more years of data are available.”
California’s new accountability system is de-emphasizing the importance of test results, which had been the sole measure of student performance. Nonetheless, education leaders will look at NAEP scores for signs of whether the Local Control Funding Formula is working to close achievement gaps . The formula provides additional money to districts based on numbers of low-income children, foster youths and English learners.
Here, too, it’s too soon to draw conclusions. Money under the formula began flowing in earnest in 2014-15, but the new accountability measures are still being rolled out. But earlier this year, researchers at UC Berkeley and the Learning Policy Institute released a study attributing higher graduation rates and higher math scores to the distribution of additional revenue under the formula. Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at USC who has admonished those who misuse NAEP data, nonetheless said that he thinks California’s 2017 results, showing the third-highest increase among all states, “corroborate the recent LPI report pretty well.”
“Obviously that’s not to say that NAEP proves LCFF is working, but it certainly lends support to what they found,” he wrote in an email.
“You want to accumulate multiple data points – more than we have so far – but what we have suggests California is headed in the right direction,” Darling-Hammond said.
This is the first year that NAEP went digital, with the tests given on computer tablets. A few state education commissioners have attributed lower scores in their states to the switch, but Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said that she is confident, after studying the impact on students of digital testing, that it had corrected for differences.
Carr attributed the lack of an increase in national reading scores and a decline of two points in math since 2013 to declining performance of the lowest performers — those whose scores fall within the bottom 25 percent of students. They have offset rising scores of students in the top percentiles, she said.