Despite Slight Uptick in State Test Scores, Huge Achievement Gaps Persist

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Huge racial and socio-economic achievement gaps persist among students across the state and in Los Angeles, according to an analysis of the 2019 state standardized test scores released Wednesday.  

“This persistent performance gap is barely improving, and we are not addressing the real problems,” said Katie Braude, executive director of Speak UP. “One simple first step would be to release the data that show which schools are making a difference each year with children who start below grade level. Student growth data would highlight which schools are moving children upward on that trajectory and can serve as models for improvement.”

Despite a minuscule increase (of about one percentage point) from last year in the number of students statewide meeting or exceeding English Language Arts and math standards on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) standardized tests administered each spring, education advocates and the head of the California Department of Education expressed deep concern about the persistent achievement disparities for English learners, low-income and Black and Latino students. And eighth graders’ scores showed a decrease from last year’s scores. 

Overall, just over half of the students in California, 50.87%, scored proficient in reading, and 39.73% did in math, less than a 1 percentage-point increase from last year.

The analysis of California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System results performed by EdVoice shows that only 39% of low-income seventh-graders in California met or exceeded reading standards, compared to 71% of their more affluent peers. In math, only 27% of low-income students, 21% of African American students and 28% of Latino students met or exceeded standards.  

“This isn’t about white students or Asian students being smarter than Black or Latino Students,” said Tunette Powell, a South Central L.A. parent and doctoral candidate in education at UCLA. “These test scores are a literal illustration of what happens when you invest in one group of students versus another. And I’m not talking about a few years of investment, I’m talking about decades and centuries of under investment.”

English learners remained at the bottom of all student groups in California for at least three consecutive years, with fewer than 13% meeting math and ELA standards statewide. Students with disabilities or in special education scored slightly higher than English Learners with 16% of them meeting or exceeding standards in ELA.

Parent Tunette Powell believes it’s time to focus on solutions, such as reducing funding inequity.

Parent Tunette Powell believes it’s time to focus on solutions, such as reducing funding inequity.

“Disparities between students of color and their white and Asian peers continue from year to year and demonstrate the importance of our priority initiative of closing the achievement gap,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said  in a news release. “Education equity should mean equity for all students, and right now, we are not there.” 

Likewise, Los Angeles Unified’s Board Member Nick Melvoin (BD4) expressed alarm over the district’s own achievement disparities.

“I am glad that our District is making progress overall, but we have a long way to go when more than half of the students in this district do not meet expectations in English and math,” Melvoin said. “I am alarmed by ongoing opportunity gaps – particularly for English-learners, students with disabilities and African-American and Latino students.”

Only 43.9% of students in LAUSD met or exceeded standards in reading, while just 33.47% did in math. That’s an increase of a little over one percentage point from last year, but LAUSD continues to lag behind the state’s results.

Despite a 6.87 percentage-point increase statewide from 2015 scores overall, Thurmond noted inconsistencies in improvement between students in seventh, eighth, and eleventh grades. The EdVoice analysis found that among eleventh graders – the only grade tested in high school – barely one-fifth of low-income eleventh graders met or exceeded math standards, compared to about half of their more affluent peers. 

“At current rates of improvement, it would take decades to have all students reaching grade-level standards. This is a crisis. California has a responsibility to all 6.2 million kids,” said Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, a nonprofit that advocates for policies to eliminate educational inequality in public schools.

 “The biggest question is what is leadership in Sacramento going to do about persistent failure in public schools, particularly in high-poverty communities and for our students of color, English Learners and children with disabilities?” Lucia added.

LAUSD student subgroups also underperformed on the test, with just 38% of Latinos and 32% of African American students scoring proficient in ELA, and 27% and 20% respectively in math.

Statewide SBAC score results

Statewide SBAC score results

“As a parent and an educator, it absolutely breaks my heart to continue to hear that year after year, there continues to be a gap in test scores across groups of students,” Powell said. “But as a researcher and as a Black woman in America, while heartbreaking, it is not surprising. These test scores that we compare and call gaps are effects, they are consequences. It is up to us to understand the root cause and to implement solutions.”

Fewer than 6% of LAUSD English Learners met or exceeded standards in ELA, and under 7% did in math. A higher percentage of students in special education met or exceeded standards, 12% in ELA and 9% in math.

“We must accelerate the pace of these incremental gains in order to close persistent achievement gaps and give every Los Angeles Unified student the opportunity to succeed,” Melvoin said. “We can’t do that without looking closely at and learning from successful schools, or without an aligned vision of where we want to be and strategic plan to get us there.”  

Nevertheless, the district highlighted its over 1 percentage point increase on the SBAC scores from a year ago and said in a press release that this the first time in many years that LAUSD showed progress across other main performance indicators, including a nearly 80% graduation rate, a decade-high 23% reclassification rate of English Learners, 80% of high school juniors taking the SAT, as well as decreases in both chronic absences and suspension rates.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district’s challenge is “to build on this foundation and accelerate the rate of progress.”  

Activists also echoed the call to pick up the pace.

“We have to do much better, much faster,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a regional educational justice advocacy group.  “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.”

Instead of placing blame on parents, teachers or students, Powell called on LAUSD to address funding inequities and to work on both racial and socio-economic integration.  

“This is where we must start,” Powell said. “This is an education debt. We need to address it the way we would address any other debt.”