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California called out as ‘a laggard in student achievement’ as test score improvement stalls

Sarah Favot | September 27, 2017

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California’s public school students performed about the same this year as they did last year on standardized tests, with LA Unified students showing slightly more improvement. But you’d need a magnifying glass to see the differences.

California’s improvement in math was so minuscule that for the first time the results were released in decimal points. Its English language arts scores declined.

The state’s top education official is even foregoing the celebratory press conference.

Less than half of California students met the standards in either subject.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson will not hold a press conference “due to previously scheduled events,” a spokesman said. Last year he came to Eagle Rock Elementary School and joined LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King and former LA School Board President Steve Zimmer to announce the scores, which showed improvement from the year before.

“The state is releasing scores to the decimal point, as opposed to rounded, to ensure the utmost accuracy in reporting results,” a California Department of Education spokesman said in an email.

Education advocates decried the state’s lack of urgency, with one calling California “a laggard in student achievement.”

  • To look up scores at your child’s school, click here and enter the county, district, and school from the drop-down menus. You can then choose the year and any subgroups you want to look at like English learners or by ethnicity or gender.

This is the third year that students have taken the tests, which cover English language arts and math and assess whether students are prepared for college. The tests are aligned to the Common Core standards and are officially called California Assessment for Student Performance and Progress, though they are better known as Smarter Balanced tests. Students in grades 3 through 8 and 11th grade took the tests online in May.

Statewide, the percentage of students who were proficient in English language arts was 48.56 percent, a slight drop from 49 percent the year before. In math, 37.56 percent of students were proficient, a slight increase from 37 percent the year before. In the second year of the tests in 2016, students statewide showed a 4 percentage point improvement in English from the year before and a 3 percentage point improvement in math.

• Read more: LAUSD improves slightly on standardized tests but still lags behind state average

“I’m pleased we retained our gains, but we have much more work to do. We need to work diligently to narrow achievement gaps and make sure all students continue to make progress,” Torlakson said in a news release. “It’s important to remember that these tests are far more rigorous and realistic than the previous paper and pencil tests. We are asking more of our students, but for a good reason — so they are better prepared for the world of college and careers.”

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at USC’s Rossier School of Education, said he puts very little stock in year-to-year changes in the percentage of students who are proficient because it is a “very, very poor measure of how much school districts are improving or not.”

But he called the progress this year troubling.

“California is really a laggard in student achievement,” he said, saying other states have prioritized improving student achievement.

“We don’t have at the state level that kind of urgency about the problem of our poor performance,” he said.

Ryan Smith, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a research and advocacy organization, also said California officials lack urgency.

“We have to believe that we should close achievement gaps in this state. Frankly, I’m concerned that state leaders no longer believe we can,” Smith said.

He said improvements being made at schools and districts should be replicated statewide.

“We should absolutely celebrate progress, but it shouldn’t take 100 years to close achievement gaps. At our current rate in LA and across the state, that could be the reality.”

Marshall Tuck, who is running for state superintendent in next year’s election and is expected to have widespread support from the education reform community, also called for more urgency.

“These results are just one, imperfect snapshot, but they tell the same story as other data we have seen: California isn’t yet prioritizing our public schools with the urgency our children deserve,” he said in a statement. “Educators, families, and students are working hard every day, but our state’s education system isn’t providing them the support necessary to yield dramatic improvement in our schools. We need real change in California’s public schools. It’s time we truly invest in our teachers and principals, unlock innovation in our schools, address the diverse needs of all kids in California, and adequately fund our classrooms– our kids can’t afford more of the same.”

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who is running against Tuck and has been endorsed by the California Federation of Teachers and Torlakson, who cannot seek re-election due to term limits, said he would reach out to leaders in some cases on a county-by-county basis to discuss their results.


“We should congratulate those districts that saw improvement in scores. But we must also acknowledge the fact that overall as a state, scores remain largely the same from last year,” he said.

“Additionally, there are huge disparities for students of color and for students from low income backgrounds pointing to the fact that we have to work with urgency to close our achievement gap. Bottom line, we still have much work to do. That starts with stronger investment in public education, including STEM, early education, enrichment programs, professional development and training, and more. We have to do better for our kids.”

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, released a statement saying the state’s new accountability system using multiple measures is a better way of evaluating how schools are improving than test scores.

“But the test scores only tell part of the story. The story of the ongoing transformation of California public education will be told more accurately by the newly implemented California School Dashboard, which uses multiple measures to provide a fuller picture of progress,” Heins said.

“When it is fully implemented by next year, the California School Dashboard accountability system will be the first step to providing parents, educators and students with the high-tech resources they have long been waiting for. As the Dashboard continues to roll out, through local indicators it will provide a full measure of student success and school climate by measuring test scores, college readiness, English learner progress and graduation and absentee rates, among other factors.”

Advocates have criticized the Dashboard for being difficult for an average person to understand and compare schools.

*This article has been updated to correct that statewide English scores declined while math scores improved. It also includes comment from Marshall Tuck, Tony Thurmond, and CTA. 

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