Credit: Alison Yin for EdSource (2017)
Students at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland.

California’s students’ Smarter Balanced test scores rose marginally in 2018-19, the fifth year of the tests, while showing little to no progress in closing wide disparities among ethnic, racial and other student groups, the California Department of Education reported on Wednesday.

The notable exception is Hispanic students, whose 5-year proficiency rate in both English language arts and math rose faster than those of white and Asian students.

For the first time, a majority — 50.9 percent — of all students who took the English language arts test met or exceeded the standard, the top two of four testing levels, the technical definition of proficiency at grade level. In math, 39.7 percent of all students met or exceeded the standard.

The Smarter Balanced tests were designed to demonstrate students’ competency under the Common Core standards, which California adopted in 2010. Most questions are multiple choice, with a performance task requiring students to demonstrate critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The tests are given in grades 3 to 8 and 11.

Under the state’s new accountability system, test scores are just one of several measures to evaluate school improvement. The California School Dashboard, the site that rates district and school performance on all of the measures, will be updated later this year.

Overall proficiency rose only about 1 percentage point for English language arts and math, compared with 2 points in 2017-18. After five years of Smarter Balanced, students who met or exceeded standards had increased 7 percentage points in both tests. That’s an average of 1.4 percentage points annually — less after discounting the large second-year bump that reflected familiarity with a new test.

This year’s small gain, “though not as much as we want, is what I would have expected,” said Julien Lafortune, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California and co-author of a recent analysis of Smarter Balanced implementation. “It’s hard to expect drastic changes from year to year” in a test taken by 3.2 million students, but “sustained improvement, even if slow, adds up over time.” In Washington and Oregon, two neighboring Smarter Balanced states, math scores declined slightly in 2018-19.

What is disappointing is that “progress in math in elementary grades is not carrying forward to middle and high school. The average student is increasingly likely not to meet standards in middle and high school,” said Neal Finkelstein, co-director of the Innovation Studies program at WestEd, the San Francisco-based research and policy organization that tracked 10 districts’ work in math over five years through the project Math in Common.

In 2018-19, 50 percent of 3rd-graders were at or above standard in math. But after 4th grade, there was a steady decline: 39 percent proficiency in 6th grade, 37 percent in 8th grade, the critical year before Algebra I, and 32 percent in 11th grade — a factor behind the California State University’s proposal to require a fourth year of high school math or quantitative reasoning.

“You can’t sugarcoat that 60 percent of students are not making standards in math,” Lafortune said.

In English language arts, the percentages of students at or above standard have increased gradually or remained constant across grades: from 49 percent of 3rd-graders to 57 percent of 11th-graders in 2018-19.

“Transitioning to Common Core was the right thing to do, and the transition has been challenging on many fronts,” said Francisco Villegas, director of school transformation focusing on K-12 math for Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that manages 18 schools in Los Angeles Unified.

Not all of the news is dreary. An EdSource analysis found that increases in English language arts proficiency in districts receiving the most extra funding under the Local Control Funding Formula — those with the most low-income students, foster youth and English learners — rose three times faster than those districts receiving the least funding: an increase over five years of 9 percentage points versus 3 points,

The gap between those districts is still huge: 39 percent proficiency in English language arts for districts with the most high-needs students versus 78 percent for those with the fewest, but the difference did close 6 percentage points since 2014-15. The pattern holds, to a lesser degree, with math.

Hispanic students, who make up the majority of California’s students, made the largest 5-year gains in proficiency: 9 percentage points in English language arts, double that of whites, and 7 percentage points in math compared with 5 percentage points for whites. But 28 percent of Hispanics scored at or above standard in math, compared with 54 percent for whites and 74 percent for Asians.

The state’s 334,000 African-American students made no progress in closing the performance gap. Only 1 in 5 were at or above standard in 2018-19 in math and in English language arts.

Scores for English language learners, a group that changes as students become proficient in English and are reclassified, remain dismal, with 13 percent at or above standard in both math and English language arts. About one-fifth of the state’s students are classified as English learners.

“At the rate we’re going, my five-year-old-son will be old enough to be a grandparent before California achieves educational justice for low-income students and underrepresented students of color. That’s simply not good enough. We have to do much better, much faster,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the advocacy organization Education Trust-West.

Islands of progress

Discouraging state statistics, however, don’t reveal a deeper, more hopeful story, Finkelstein said. Look locally, where differences in effectively implementing the standards reveal big variations among districts and schools.

“It’s all the more important to find champions in this work. The exceptions can be highlighted and learned from,” Finkelstein said. He cited Garden Grove, a district often praised for its stable leadership and collaboration among teachers, where 3 out of 4 students are low-income and English learners. In the latest results, 61 percent of students were at or above standards in English language arts and 52 percent in math — twice that of Santa Ana, its Orange County neighbor.

Observers have suggested multiple reasons for the low proficiency in math and the drop in scores in middle school. Arun Ramanathan, CEO of Pivot Learning, a nonprofit organization that works with schools on improvement strategies, said many districts were too quick to adopt subpar instructional materials when they began implementing the Common Core and haven’t switched to better textbooks. Villegas said that some districts signed long-term contracts early in the implementation process, putting them in a bind.

Then there’s the nature of middle school, where many students develop the I’m-no- good-at-math mindset, and the nature of math itself. More so than with English language arts, math builds on prior knowledge. Middle school students who are weak in fractions, a building block for algebra introduced in the early grades, will struggle later on, experts said.

There’s often no time during the year to work with students who are falling behind, said Lisa Andrew, CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. Last summer, 4,000 students from grades 3 to 10 in 32 Bay Area districts did a 19-day math intervention program. Elevate [Math] targets students who tested one level below standard, not the furthest behind. It addresses their weaknesses and introduces them to content they will see in the fall.

“Extended time is not optional any more to close the achievement gap,” Andrew said. “The research is clear: Students need to be engaged in high-quality learning during the summer, during breaks.”

Common Core demands that math be taught differently, with an emphasis on students’ conceptual understanding. That can be a big lift for teachers who learned to teach with mnemonic devices and formulas. Finkelstein, Ramanathan and Andrew agree that teachers aren’t getting enough in-the-classroom coaching.

Elevate [Math] puts the 178 credentialed teachers in the program through 60 hours of professional development, starting in the spring. Rocketship Public Schools, a charter school organization with 13 K-5 schools in the Bay Area, has had success by differentiating between English/social studies and STEM teachers, who teach only math and science.

“We give new teachers the choice of STEM or humanities,” said CEO Preston Smith, “but we encourage science majors to try to teach STEM.”

All Rocketship teachers get 400 hours of training over the course of a year, where they can concentrate on math and science without having to feel they must be the master of all subjects, he said.

In 2018-19, Rocketship reported 61 percent of students at or above standard in math — way above the statewide average; 80 percent of its students are low-income students or English learners.

Under local control, each district is responsible for its own improvement strategies. Some have formed data collaboratives and networks. Michael Kirst, the former State Board of Education president and an architect of local control under former Gov. Jerry Brown, acknowledges that, with scores stagnant in many districts, the state should play a larger role. He’s not sure what the priority should be: fund more specialists for county offices of education; re-establish math academies, as Gov. Gray Davis did for algebra; create more summer programs like Elevate or encourage teacher specialists.

“We’re doing better in English language arts than I predicted and worse in math,” he said. “The problem is serious.”

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education policy at the USC Rossier School of Education, who recently published a brief challenging the state’s method of measuring test scores, said, “If the state is concerned about the magnitude of performance gaps, they probably should exercise more of their constitutional authority over education and take a stronger hand in telling districts to do things that will help improve outcomes.”

“Local control never really boosted equity anywhere,” he added.

Villegas characterized the issue differently. “Letting each district decide is fine, as along as there is guidance on what effective practices and effective implementation look like,”  he said.

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  1. Marc Wheeler 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    It should be obvious why test scores in math for all but Asian American students are bad and getting worse. If you do terrible on a test that everyone says is important, then you find out practically everyone at your school did terribly, then find out the tests don't matter for what you want to do, then get made to feel stupid by over stressed math teachers, then get an increased number of interim … Read More

    It should be obvious why test scores in math for all but Asian American students are bad and getting worse. If you do terrible on a test that everyone says is important, then you find out practically everyone at your school did terribly, then find out the tests don’t matter for what you want to do, then get made to feel stupid by over stressed math teachers, then get an increased number of interim benchmark cycle whatever tests that make no sense to you, it will take more than a crappy pep rally to get you motivated to try hard on that test.

    I was a process engineer before becoming a teacher. If I worked at a place that had a 65% defect rate, we would not be slapping ourselves on the back because it fell to 60% over four years. We would not be looking to solve the problem just by training, better instruments and control schemes. We would simply realize that there was a fundamental mis-match between what our customer specifications were asking for, and what our production process could actually supply. This would lead to a process by which we would first widen our specifications wherever it was allowable based on the true needs of our customers. This would allow us to make some money and then invest in the training, instrumentation and control schemes that created an ability to then narrow the specifications and satisfy more customers. Our math education leaders need to bone up on modern quality management methodology.

    The military and most coaches would realize you don’t just keep putting people in the same fight where they get hammered. You don’t test until you are sure that the fail rate will not be higher than the remediation resources available will handle. You must have a goal that close to 100% will pass and then follow through on the steps you know how to do to ensure teachers do what they are paid and trained to do that takes you to that goal.

    Marc Wheeler – Teacher

  2. SD Parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    When folks in education expect and are complacent with less than a 2% average annual increase – or when a school district like San Diego Unified is "lauded" as a positive outlier for the improvement of African American/black students, but where 63% of these students have NOT met the standards in ELA and 73% have NOT met the standards in Math (2018) – I'm appalled and incredibly frustrated. Looking at the statewide CAASP results, … Read More

    When folks in education expect and are complacent with less than a 2% average annual increase – or when a school district like San Diego Unified is “lauded” as a positive outlier for the improvement of African American/black students, but where 63% of these students have NOT met the standards in ELA and 73% have NOT met the standards in Math (2018) – I’m appalled and incredibly frustrated.

    Looking at the statewide CAASP results, if 49% of California’s population lacked access to electricity or 60% lacked access to potable water, and the state hired more than 300,000 workers on these projects, would we be satisfied with 2% gains each year? Or would we drilling down to the details of understanding what the problems were, fixing the issues, and sharing best practices?

    The state of California provides food for all children, regardless of means, so it would seem to care about its children, but what about their education? Why do the powers-that-be in education seems to just look at each other and say “well, small gains will add up over time” or “we need more teachers of color” or “we need better teacher preparation programs” or “we need more funding” and seem to shrug as millions of children are deprived of meaningful improvement in learning every year?

    Unless we’re satisfied to essentially write-off today’s students and wait another generation to reach a statewide average proficiency of over 90% in both ELA and Math, we need to do something dramatic now. Use data-driven research (with good controls) to assess the barriers in California that are preventing students from succeeding, share data-driven best practices that dramatically improve student outcomes, and establish meaningful accountability that will drive more dramatic improvement. To continue the status quo is to leave millions of California’s children forever in the dark.

  3. el 1 month ago1 month ago

    A factor that I think we should never forget is that I have yet to see a class graduate K-12 on the same curriculum for the whole student progression. For even one class to experience that, we’d have to have the same curriculum in place for 13 years. Has that ever happened in California?

  4. Jennifer Bestor 1 month ago1 month ago

    A bill taking $50 billion out of school funding will become law on Tuesday. And you probably never heard about it – let alone demanded that Governor Newsom veto it. Yet feast-to-famine-to-feast school funding underlies our ongoing inability to educate California's kids, as the recent results testify. This year our Great Recession class graduates. They began kindergarten in the fall of 2008. Their entire school careers have been a kaleidoscope of layoffs, … Read More

    A bill taking $50 billion out of school funding will become law on Tuesday. And you probably never heard about it – let alone demanded that Governor Newsom veto it. Yet feast-to-famine-to-feast school funding underlies our ongoing inability to educate California’s kids, as the recent results testify.

    This year our Great Recession class graduates. They began kindergarten in the fall of 2008. Their entire school careers have been a kaleidoscope of layoffs, new standards, uncredentialed teachers, increased spending, deferrals and college expectations.

    What threw them straight under the bus? An unheralded bill in June 2004 that repurposed school property tax to pay a state obligation to cities and counties. It meant that, when the music stopped in 2008, schools were short an annual $6 billion of reliable, stable, local funding. And we all know how that ended — with the choice between $6 billion a year of permanent cuts or the unlikely-until-the-last-moment passage of Prop 30.

    But we caught up, right? No, education is like retirement funds. You can’t cram it all in, come high school. Without a solid groundwork in the early years, it’s a heartbreaking, losing game of catch-up.

    And we’ve done it again? Yes. On top of the still-ongoing, now-grown-to-$9 billion a year diversion above, we’re just about to add $2 billion more.

    How did they hide this? In plain sight, by taking it from ERAF. “ERAF??” Property tax in each county allocated to revenue augmentation for those schools without local real-estate wealth. It was created in 1992 when the state reclaimed the 30 percent of school property tax that it had handed off to cities and counties in 1979, a year after Proposition 13.

    Muni governments have done a great job of Remembering The ERAF, while education writes off property tax as Serrano v. Priest inequity. So off trots more of the most reliable, stable, local public revenue. Leaving the next generation of California schoolchildren exposed, leaving the education community grovelingly grateful when Prop 98 gets its minimum funding, and making it likely that we’ll continue to view 51% proficient as a victory, rather than a public disgrace.

    Replies

    • Ann 1 month ago1 month ago

      You are deluded if you believe for a second that our schools are underfunded. Funds misappropriated. Unwisely spent. No question.

  5. Thomas Ferraro 1 month ago1 month ago

    Wow…well these are all future California politicians.

  6. Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago

    We could be running out of canaries in the mine. No? How many times do we have to kill the canary before we recognize the root cause problems in K-12 education? Everyone engages in the fall Kabuki Theater. If only 1/2 of the products of a business were flawed, the business would long ago have been shuttered. Not so with the education industry. We just shrug our shoulders, hope for the best next year, and … Read More

    We could be running out of canaries in the mine. No?

    How many times do we have to kill the canary before we recognize the root cause problems in K-12 education? Everyone engages in the fall Kabuki Theater. If only 1/2 of the products of a business were flawed, the business would long ago have been shuttered. Not so with the education industry. We just shrug our shoulders, hope for the best next year, and move on! Hey we taught them! They just didn’t learn! How pathetic!

    Of course, we have the perennial option of blaming the victims for system-wide poor academic performance. They don’t have a math success mindset! They are economically disadvantaged? They don’t get to have a Black teacher! They are long-term English Learners. They are not in a small school! They are not quite socio-emotionally ready to learn. Yada Yada Yada!

    How about we think about some transformational changes to the moribund K-12 education system. How about we rebuild the colleges of education so that they can recruit the finest and train them well? How about we create a powerful career ladder for teachers that starts them as novice teachers and goes to apprentice teacher to journeymen teacher to master teacher? How about we pay our certified journeymen and Master teachers 6-figure salaries?

    How about we derive our principals and district administrators from the Teacher master class for temporary assignments where they are expected to spend 80% of their time modelling high quality professional practices, coaching and evaluation for the teachers? How about we expect a full 8-hour day of work for teachers that includes self-reflection and peer collaboration? How about we expect an 11 month work year for teachers? How about we let go of the Equity curriculum and design some high quality Reading, Math, and Science curricula for teachers to use?

    The children and families are tired of waiting. Children are beginning to wake up to the massive failures of the grown ups around them and have started to agitate for gun control and climate change. Maybe it is time for them to start agitating for a better education! It is their only hope at this point!

  7. Marcelino 1 month ago1 month ago

    Really simple. Let people who know math teach math. You wouldn’t take your car to a dentist nor should we let our students learn math from an English language arts major.

    Replies

    • Marc Wheeler 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Interesting comment, Marcelino. I assume you are referring to lower grades where there is a lack of much math talent in teachers, but then again they are dealing with math that is fairly easy and the multi-subject credential should in theory give them enough preparation. At the high school level, I have usually seen a good level of math competency in California. I think the problem is more that we lack flexibility and resources. The SBAC … Read More

      Interesting comment, Marcelino.

      I assume you are referring to lower grades where there is a lack of much math talent in teachers, but then again they are dealing with math that is fairly easy and the multi-subject credential should in theory give them enough preparation. At the high school level, I have usually seen a good level of math competency in California.

      I think the problem is more that we lack flexibility and resources. The SBAC test is very difficult for many students, and there is a general lack of good curriculum that aligns well with the goals and methodology of the new standards. This leads to a certain amount of misguided effort and resources towards meeting an unrealistic goal. There is already hopefully change that will happen soon in the area of measuring individual progress rather than a set standard level.

      The system is broken but still limps along well in many areas. Let’s say we are a 4/10 in math. People need to stop looking at what is keeping us from being a 5/10 and instead look at what is keeping us from slipping to a 3/10.
      Marc Wheeler – Teacher

  8. Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

    I’ve been critical but I’m actually really proud of California right now. When you start researching other states that are pulling only 4% proficient in math at some schools. I feel like we are on the right track. Awesome job teachers. Rising.

    Replies

    • Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago

      You have got to be kidding Bo! 39% overall proficient or advanced in Math is nothing to be proud of with big achievement gaps for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities! It is no way to run a school system. As educators, we get paid whether the students pass or fail and most of them are currently failing math. It is time that we quit the self-satisfied faux congratulations and begin … Read More

      You have got to be kidding Bo!

      39% overall proficient or advanced in Math is nothing to be proud of with big achievement gaps for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities!

      It is no way to run a school system. As educators, we get paid whether the students pass or fail and most of them are currently failing math. It is time that we quit the self-satisfied faux congratulations and begin to address the root cause problems of teacher preparation and career ladders. It will take transformational changes way beyond the capacity of the current crop of California educators.

      It is time for the children and families to hit the streets in protest to the woeful education that they are receiving.

      • Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

        I feel like we are doing a better job here with all of our students than some others states are. Like I said, I have been shocked to find schools with only 4% proficiency in math in other parts of the country. Sometimes teachers need to be commended and encouraged that the number of proficient is rising not falling. It's been a steady climb. It will be interesting to see how the … Read More

        I feel like we are doing a better job here with all of our students than some others states are. Like I said, I have been shocked to find schools with only 4% proficiency in math in other parts of the country. Sometimes teachers need to be commended and encouraged that the number of proficient is rising not falling. It’s been a steady climb. It will be interesting to see how the kids who started with common core math in kindergarten do throughout their school career.

  9. Eugene 1 month ago1 month ago

    Thanks John for the reporting!

  10. James P. Scanlan 1 month ago1 month ago

    Analyses of changes in performance gaps involving proficiency are invariably misleading when undertaken without consideration of the ways measures tend to be affected by the prevalence of an outcome. As education generally improves, relative (percentage) differences in meeting standards tend to decrease while relative differences in failure to meet standards tends to increase. Absolute (percentage point) differences also tend to change as proficiency rates generally change, though in a more complicated way than … Read More

    Analyses of changes in performance gaps involving proficiency are invariably misleading when undertaken without consideration of the ways measures tend to be affected by the prevalence of an outcome. As education generally improves, relative (percentage) differences in meeting standards tend to decrease while relative differences in failure to meet standards tends to increase. Absolute (percentage point) differences also tend to change as proficiency rates generally change, though in a more complicated way than the two relative differences. When rates for both groups being compared are low (below 50%), general improvements tend to increase absolute differences. When rates for both groups are high, general improvements tend to reduce absolute differences. The situation is more complicated when the rates are low for one group and high for the other or when the rate for either group goes from being low to being high during the period examined. To effectively determine whether one is observing anything other than standard consequences of a change in the overall prevalence of an outcome one needs to employ a measure like probit d’. See references below.
    “Race and Mortality Revisited,” Society (July/Aug. 2014)
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12115-014-9790-1#page-1
    Comments for Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (Nov. 14, 2016)
    https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=USBC-2016-0003-0135
    “Innumeracy at the Department of Education and the Congressional Committees Overseeing It,” Federalist Society Blog (Aug. 24, 2017)
    https://fedsoc.org/commentary/blog-posts/innumeracy-at-the-department-of-education-and-the-congressional-committees-overseeing-it

  11. Kaisermomaof1 1 month ago1 month ago

    Restore and robustly fund music and art and libraries programs at middle school and high school levels. Stop putting them in competition with academics, and scores will start improving.

  12. Doug McRae 1 month ago1 month ago

    For additional context for CA's 2019 Smarter Balanced statewide results, go to https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6463788-SmarterBalanced-2019-McRae100919.html. This 6-page data document has 2019 state-by-state data for all Smarter Balanced that have released results to date, along with average annual gains for ELA and Math for 2016-17-18-19, and finally ELA and Math average gains as well as consortium averages for 2016-17-18-19 that translate into A thru F letter designations for each year. It also raises serious questions for stagnated … Read More

    For additional context for CA’s 2019 Smarter Balanced statewide results, go to https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6463788-SmarterBalanced-2019-McRae100919.html. This 6-page data document has 2019 state-by-state data for all Smarter Balanced that have released results to date, along with average annual gains for ELA and Math for 2016-17-18-19, and finally ELA and Math average gains as well as consortium averages for 2016-17-18-19 that translate into A thru F letter designations for each year. It also raises serious questions for stagnated Smarter Balanced gain scores for the last three years.

    Replies

    • Ann 1 month ago1 month ago

      Come on Mr. Fensterwald, enlist McCrae to write for EdSource so we have can have an alternate view from the establishment responsible for the dismal performance in California schools. The damage done just under Jerry Brown with Kirst assuring his ineffectual if not harmful craziness was carried out has been horrific. Julien LaFortune, Neal Finkelstein, Francisco Villegas, Arun Ramanathan and many others who have had their voices elevated here and in districts across the state, … Read More

      Come on Mr. Fensterwald, enlist McCrae to write for EdSource so we have can have an alternate view from the establishment responsible for the dismal performance in California schools. The damage done just under Jerry Brown with Kirst assuring his ineffectual if not harmful craziness was carried out has been horrific.

      Julien LaFortune, Neal Finkelstein, Francisco Villegas, Arun Ramanathan and many others who have had their voices elevated here and in districts across the state, as well as their bank accounts nicely filled, should be exiled. They have promoted failing policies and always fall back on the same refrain; still more money, more time, more ‘professional development,’ better’ early childhoods, all of which have all been implemented to one degree or another with dismal results.

      The increase in spending has been staggering, for salaries and benefits for employees. No professional development will make up for the ridiculous schools of education, also taxpayer funded, that spend far more time on training social justice warriors with low GPAs than pedagogy let alone content.

      What is TK anyway? Fully credentialed teachers with 10-15 kids, help from the counties, and…nothing changes. There is State preschool, Migrant preschool, any number of free non-profit preschools. California wasted time and money adopting Common Core when we had world class math and ELA standards in place.

      Well, I guess under Obama we would have been denied some federal funding if we had held out but as someone on the ground the wasted time and money and children’s futures are far, far greater. So why not step back and listen to alternative voices? Let’s have real reform which may involve a bit backing up to more of the past fundamentals of education. Give our kids and this state a chance for success.