First comprehensive data in two years show big academic setbacks for California students

California’s K-12 students experienced significant academic setbacks during the 2020-21 school year of mainly remote learning, showing growing achievement gaps, lagging progress in math and English, increased chronic absenteeism and a slight decline in the statewide graduation rate, according to data released Friday by the California Department of Education.

The data provide the most comprehensive picture yet of how California students have fared during the pandemic. It includes standardized test results for students from third to eighth grade and high school juniors, as well as information on attendance, discipline statistics and graduation rates.

The results show that about half of all California students tested did not meet state standards in English language arts and about two-thirds did not meet standards in math. The scores of Black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students were significantly lower, with more than 60% not meeting English standards and about 80% not meeting math standards.

In English language arts, the rate of students not meeting expectations was significantly higher in earlier grades compared with later grades, indicating that younger students may be uniquely struggling with literacy skills. For example, about 60% of third and fourth graders were not meeting standards in English compared to about 40% of 11th graders.

The test results are the first statewide student achievement scores available after testing was cancelled during the 2019-20 school year, when the pandemic forced schools closures in March 2020.

Some educators, parents and teachers unions, including United Teachers Los Angeles, were strongly opposed to administering standardized tests last spring, saying students and families did not need the added stress and results would be unreliable. Others, however, emphasized the importance of capturing assessment data to gauge student learning, and the State Board of Education voted last February against pursuing a waiver from the federal government to suspend mandated standardized testing for a second straight year.

School districts were given significant leeway to account for the fact that most students were still not attending school in-person — shortened versions of the statewide tests were administered and districts were allowed to give their own local assessments, rather than use the statewide tests.

As a result, fewer than a quarter of students participated in the English and math statewide tests, a rate far lower than typical years, when a vast majority of students take the tests. The testing circumstances make year-to-year comparisons difficult.

In an effort to offer some comparison to previous years, state officials analyzed the test scores of the same cohort of students year after year. Those results show that while students made progress, it was at a slower rate than previous years.

State officials acknowledged that the numbers underscore the difficulties experienced by children during remote learning.

“The challenges that students and educators faced during the pandemic were multidimensional and disruptive to learning and mental health,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond in a news release. “Our goal now is to move all students forward.”

The four-year graduation rate fell from 84.2% in 2019-20 to 83.6% last year. While the dip was small, it was the second year of small declines following years of steady growth. The biggest drop was among Black students, whose graduation rate fell from 76.8% in 2019-20 to 72.5% last year.

Rates of chronic absenteeism, where students are absent for at least 10% of school days, also grew from about 12% to 14%. The increases were even bigger for the most vulnerable students, including Black, Latino, Native American, foster and homeless youth, migrant students and English learners.

The data add to a significant body of evidence of the harms of the pandemic and school closures on student achievement. Nationwide, studies have repeatedly shown the most vulnerable students suffering the most significant setbacks.

This fall, an L.A. Times analysis of Los Angeles Unified data found deep drops in assessment scores or below grade-level standing in key areas of learning, with Black, Latino and other vulnerable students especially hard hit.




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