California’s current approach to presenting and analyzing education data obscures tremendous successes and failures. As a result, teachers and principals miss out on some of the most meaningful learning the data offers.
News this week about the 2018-19 Smarter Balanced test results concluded that growth is slow and “scores are stagnant.” California, like most states, compares students in this year’s grade to the same grade the previous year.In 2019, 48.5 percent of 3rd-grade students met ELA standards, up a meager 0.3 percent from the previous year.
Instead, if schools follow the same groups of students over time the results are very different: 48.2 percent of 3rd-graders were reading at or above state standards in 2017-18. As they moved into 4th grade, 54 percent of them were reading at standards, a gain of nearly 6 percent.
If schools begin to track achievement for a class of students over time, they can generate new insights that shape teaching and learning. I rearranged the publicly available K-12 data to create groups of California students based on when their classes will eventually graduate from high school. Last year’s 3rd-graders are in the Class of 2028, 4th-graders in the Class of 2027 and so on.
Each class averages around 458,000 students at the start of 3rd grade and fluctuates in size by 0.4 percent from year to year. While the size of classes can rise and fall within schools (as families move to different neighborhoods), they remain stable in most districts and the state as a whole.
What I found surprised me.
In English Language Arts, in the four classes that have taken Smarter Balanced tests since entering 3rd grade, 123,000 more students are meeting and exceeding standards. The class of 2025 saw a dip last year, though its trajectory is one of long-term improvement.
In mathematics, the data reveal a more concerning story: 103,000 fewer students are meeting or exceeding standards in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th grades than they were as 3rd-graders.
California is unable to see these trends and pose basic questions that other states can easily answer, because it has not tracked individual students’ growth as part of its school accountability system.
The state does include a limited “change over time” feature on its CAASPP website. But because it only displays percentages, it doesn’t show the change in the number of students performing at each level. Looking at this new feature, you’d have no way of knowing that 40,000 fewer 5th-graders are meeting math standards than they were as 3rd-graders.
With a few exceptions, California’s trend of a rise in ELA proficiency and a slide in math holds across all 11 states publicly reporting Smarter Balanced achievement data. But there is one important divergence: California, Connecticut and Idaho have been able to reverse the decline in math. They showed a “6th grade bounce.” The classes of 2022 and 2023 showed it too and then plateaued as students moved into 8th grade.
These trends are evident in national data as well. If you follow cohorts of 4th-graders who take the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and see how they achieve four years later, math declines and reading bumps up slightly. But the NAEP is only administered every two years to nationally representative samples of students in grades 4 and 8.
The advantage of the Smarter Balanced data is we can see these changes year to year and begin to understand how to work with each class of students differently.
In order to meet California’s employment needs, 103,000 more — not fewer — students need to be meeting and exceeding the state’s math standards. One of the lead writers of the Common Core standards in math, Jason Zimba, wrote in 2014, “Arithmetic is like the handle of a wrench: grasped firmly it gives you leverage. Students who don’t have the right foundation in arithmetic will struggle in later grades.”
What should California do? First, we need to generate and lock in feedback from expert teachers. The state, or a group of concerned districts, should convene elementary teachers at each grade level and begin to generate hypotheses about what the contributing factors to the success and failure might be.
Master teachers can explore what needs to be different and what’s going well. Is pacing off: Are teachers moving too fast or too slow through certain math topics? Are teachers doing something valuable with the way they organize small reading groups?
The regional conferences of the California Mathematics Council provide one venue for these inquiries. The initial answers to these questions don’t need to determine definitive causes, but can serve as the start of an ongoing inquiry to guide colleagues in the 11 states that administer the Smarter Balanced tests.
Second, we need to change the way we see and analyze the data. The California School Dashboard — which measures performance at a school, district and state level — needs to follow groups of students over time, showing the trends across all performance categories.
The State Board of Education is investigating whether to adopt a student growth model and will look to an advisory committee for a recommendation, but it will not decide on adoption until late 2020, at the earliest. It should accelerate this timeline.
The Math-in-Common network, a consortium of 10 California districts, has been helping math teachers navigate roadblocks to improving their instruction. While these efforts are “grounded in theories of improvement”, their reports make it difficult to see the magnitude of the problem that an analysis of individual students’ growth reveals: that tens of thousands of students who once were meeting or exceeding state standards no longer are. Two of their districts — Long Beach and Garden Grove Unified have shown less of a slide in math and are making the largest gains in English.
Finally, we need to build case studies of individual student success and failure. Analyze a group of students who started out meeting standards in 3rd grade and determine why they have slipped in 5th and 6th grades, assembling a complete picture of their academic and social foundations.
Similarly, we need to review a group of students who initially weren’t meeting standards and have grown to do so. Research in organizational leadership emphasizes the need to study our successes so we can replicate and build on them.
Learning is about understanding why things happen. For all the rhetoric around “continuous improvement” in California, it’s hard to learn much of anything unless we’re studying both our successes and failures using analytical tools that are available but not used.
David Wakelyn is a consultant at Union Square Learning, a nonprofit that works with school districts and charter schools to improve instruction. He previously was on the team at the National Governors Association that developed Common Core State Standards.
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