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Results Of California’s First Statewide Tests Since COVID Are Back. Find Out How Your SoCal School Fared

A laptop screen is open on a student's desk as they watch a Zoom meeting
Student test scores in California have fallen over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, while schools learned to adapt to quickly changing circumstances.
(Kyle Stokes
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California's first round of standardized test scores since COVID-19's onset are out, and the results are exactly as many teachers, academics and parents have predicted: Two tumultuous years of pandemic disruptions in the state's K-12 public schools have thrown many students off-track academically.

Statewide, 47% of students met or exceeded standards on the state's English language arts tests, a decline of roughly 4 percentage points from the last pre-pandemic round of testing.

One-third of students met or exceeded the state's expectations in math, a drop of more than 6 percentage points, according to data the California Department of Education released Monday morning.

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The math result roughly matches the lowest-ever recorded score on California's Smarter Balanced assessments since the state started using them in 2015. The state administers the test each spring to all students in Grades 3-8, and once to students while in high school.

These test score data were significant because they "reflect the first comprehensive look at academic growth and gaps since before the lives of the state’s students and families were upended by the COVID pandemic," said Christopher J. Nellum, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a non-profit equity organization.

"These baseline data underscore what many of us know: that the road to recovery is long and our students will need sustained support over many years," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the state's top elected education official, in a press release announcing the results.

Many of California's K-12 campuses remained closed to in-person instruction for longer than schools in other states. While experts said the decline in scores likely reflects the chaos of the pandemic in general, they said it was too early to draw any specific conclusions about the effect of campus closures on this year's scores.

After all, emergency distance learning is a historically rare phenomenon. But, for example, volumes of research strongly link chronic absenteeism with academic performance — and the pandemic caused so many students to miss a lot of classes.

"There was so much illness and so many students being absent from schools because of the quarantine policies that were put in place," said Lucrecia Santibañez, an associate professor at UCLA's School of Education & Information Studies, "so I was bracing for worse results based mostly on that."

Some of Southern California's largest school systems saw startling declines in proficiency rates between 2019 and 2022. In Long Beach Unified — the region's second-largest school system — the rate at which students met or exceeded math standards dropped by 13 percentage points.

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The statewide decline is scores wasn't as bad as Santibañez feared, but she still found the results "concerning," particularly in math.

“Math is such a gatekeeping subject for college and beyond," the education economist said, noting that many students can’t earn higher degrees because they can’t pass college-level math courses. She also noted that the decline in math scores highlights the critical need for effective math teachers at a time when many teachers are expressing exhaustion and frustration with their jobs: "Math has never been an easy subject to staff."

Plus, "it’s not like we were doing well by all our kids to begin with," said Alicia Montgomery, executive director of the Center for Powerful Public Schools, an organization offering training to teachers serving Black and Latino students.

Montgomery noted that Black students' scores on math exams trailed peer groups before the pandemic. Now, just under 16% of Black students meet or exceed the state's expectations in math, compared with nearly 48% of their White peers.

Household income does not entirely explain the discrepancy, Montgomery noted. In L.A. County, Black students who are not considered "economically disadvantaged" fare worse on math exams than white students who come from lower-income households.

"We know that a lot of our schools and education systems … aren’t delivering on their promise of equal education for all students," said Santibañez. "To me, these differences in scores for groups from different backgrounds say more about the school and the education offered to those students than the students themselves."

Despite the grim topline figures, state Department of Education officials said there was some reason for optimism.

The federal government released results late Sunday of separate, nationwide testing — the "Nation's Report Card" — that showed California students still lost ground, but not quite as much as children in other states. Los Angeles Unified officials said their students fared better than those in other urban school districts on those national assessments. (The district had already released its SBAC scores in September; its state-level scores declined.)

State officials also argued there was evidence that students who fell behind during the pandemic were already making up ground they'd lost.

California schools had the option to skip the exams altogether in 2020-21, although a limited number of schools did administer the exams. State officials said they compared results of those 2020-21 tests with those same students' scores last spring and found "steeper-than-normal achievement gains at most grade levels, a hopeful sign that the state’s robust investments in accelerating learning are paying off."

More than 250 schools in L.A. County administered both math and English exams in spring 2021.

In that group, the average school saw a decline of 7 percentage points in English and 8.4 percentage points in math between 2019 and 2021. Between 2021 and this past spring, those schools' scores appeared to rebound in English — the average school gained 2 percentage points in that subject — but were flat in math.

Is it possible the improvements in this relative handful of schools reflects a rebound from a pandemic low-point? "There's no real way of extrapolating," said Nellum of the EdTrust-West.

"It is definitely promising," he said, adding that schools will need to identify why these schools were able to improve their scores, "because even with these gains, the equity gaps that persist for English Learners, students of color, and students from low-income households are egregious and 'rebounding' to pre-pandemic performance is not sufficient."

Montgomery said the improvement offers little reason to celebrate. When I read her the press release from the California Department of Education, she was non-plussed. "I just feel like that's a 'duh.' So? Kids are back in person. If you're not doing better, shame on you … How dare you think that's something!"

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

Updated October 25, 2022 at 5:12 PM PDT