California student test scores dismal during COVID closures

The numbers are in for California’s student performance over the last school year when the state led the country in campus closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the most comprehensive assessment yet of their mostly remote learning shows they failed to make the grade in English, math and science.

Statewide assessment scores released Friday show less than half of students at or above grade level in English, only a third in math and less than a third in science, a step backward from modest gains before the pandemic in what already were troubling achievement levels.

“The statewide performance data from last year confirm what we heard from school districts and county offices throughout the year,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in a statement Friday. “Namely, the challenges that students and educators faced during the pandemic were multi-dimensional and disruptive to learning and mental health. Our goal now is to move all students forward.”

Leaders of parent groups that organized on social media to push school boards and lawmakers to return kids to classrooms said the test scores affirmed their concerns. They already knew California ranked last among the states for time spent in the classroom in 2020-21.

“We knew once this data was finally released it would be bad,” said Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of CA Parent Power, whose kids attend Oakland schools. “Distance learning set all kids back and widened already big achievement gaps.”

The scores come amid a new wave of school closures driven by a surge of COVID-19 cases from the virus’ super-contagious omicron variant. Schools in West Contra Costa and Milpitas unified school districts were forced to close temporarily due to student and staff illnesses. Oakland Unified closed a dozen schools after hundreds of teachers demanding a return to remote learning called in sick Friday to protest safety concerns.

“It is important more than ever that our schools stay open to not make this learning loss worse,” said Jonathan Zachreson, founder of the Reopen California Schools group in Roseville who’s running for state Assembly .

The U.S. Department of Education had waived the testing requirement for the 2019-2020 school year that was interrupted in March 2020 by widespread COVID-19 outbreaks and school closures across the country. The waiver did not apply for the most recently completed 2020-21 school year, and states were told they would have to administer statewide academic assessments of English literacy, math and science.

States were allowed more flexibility in their administration, including shortened versions of the tests, online remote testing where feasible and a longer window of time to complete the assessments. Even so, state officials said that was a huge lift given most districts were in remote learning until well into last spring.

Comparing test results with pre-pandemic years is difficult, state officials said, because the circumstances were so different and participation far lower. While 95% of eligible students were tested in English and math before the pandemic, less than 25% completed the assessments in all subject areas in 2020-21.

“As a result, it is not possible to know whether differences in the scores from this year as compared to previous years are a function of differences in the population of test takers or differences in the teaching and learning that have occurred,” the California Department of Education said in its report on the results.

Although the percentage of children taking the assessments was much lower, the results of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, which includes the “Smarter Balanced” assessments of English language arts and math and the California Science Test, are sobering, state officials said.

Just 49% of all assessed students in grades 3-8 and 11 met or exceeded grade-level achievement for English, and only 34% for math. That’s a drop from 2018-19, when 51% met or exceeded standards in English and 40% in math.

For science, a mere 29% of all students in grades 5, 8 and 10-12 scored at or above grade level achievement, down from 30% in 2018-19.

The results generally were worse for children at lower grade levels and for students who are Black and Hispanic.

For English, 75% of Asian and 60% of White students tested at or above grade-level achievement, compared with 38% of Hispanic and 34% of Black students. For Math, 69% of Asian students tested at or above grade-level compared with 45% of White, 20% of Hispanic and 18% of Black students.

For Science, 60% of Asian students at all grades tested at or above grade-level achievement compared with 40% of White, 16% of Hispanic and 14% of Black students.

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