CA Students Fare Poorly on “Nation’s Report Card”

Standardized TestCalifornia fared poorly in the latest round of a bellwether series of key elementary and middle-school tests. “What’s sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card, a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math, painted a dismal picture of a state that insists it is prioritizing K-12 education, on which it is spending $53 billion this fiscal year,” the San Jose Mercury News noted.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, as the tests are formally known, ranked fourth graders in only five states, plus Washington, D.C., at as low a level of math proficiency as California’s.

The latest round of nationwide fourth and eighth grade math and reading tests yielded disappointing results. Stacked up against other states, California hovered at the lower end of the scale. “Across California, scores stagnated since 2013 at all levels — there were some small dips, which were not statistically significant,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Laying blame

Although national and state officials alike cautioned that the trouble was hard to pinpoint, project, or trace back to root causes, some pointed the finger at the changes in testing brought on by this year’s shift toward compliance with the new Common Core Standards. “The NAEP tests aren’t completely aligned with the Common Core State Standards,” however, as state Department of Education spokesman Bill Ainsworth informed the Mercury News via email. “Consequently, we do not believe they are a good measure of California students’ progress.”

But the test results did also reveal significant racial and ethnic divergences. This year, added the Times, “between a quarter and a third of the state’s students performed at or above proficiency on the various tests; in fourth-grade reading, 4 out of 10 students were deemed to be below basic. And, fewer than 1 in 5 students of color or low-income students met or exceeded proficiency on any test.” What’s more, the paper noted, over the past three years, “California’s Latino students’ scores decreased slightly, but were flat in fourth-grade reading.”

For analysts focused on comparative racial test performance, the results turned back the clock. According to Education Week, “performance gaps between black, Hispanic and white students, in reading remained as wide in 2015 as they were in 1998. In math,” however, “the gap between black and white fourth-grade students has narrowed by about 10 points since 2000.”

Some analysts shied away from drawing too strong an inference even along lines of race. Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Loveless told Education Week that “California’s demographics — including nearly 1.4 million students classified as English language learners — make it difficult to pinpoint the impact of the state’s school system versus other social and economic factors on results. In three of the state’s largest school districts — Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego — achievement gaps between black, Hispanic, and white students have remained largely unchanged or even widened.”

Racial controversy

The intersection of race and education has recently occupied central, contested ground in California. In the wake of the Vergara case, which alleged civil rights violations against minority students as a consequence of protective teachers’ union policies, the political stakes have been raised in the debate over which disparities matter most and how they are to be corrected.

The controversy has magnified the significance of studies plowing similar ground. As Inside Higher Ed reported, a long-term analysis of SAT scores, released by the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, showed that “race and ethnicity have become stronger predictors of SAT scores than family income and parental education levels,” at least “among applicants to the University of California’s campuses.” The study’s author, Saul Geiser, concluded that admissions committees should offset the impact of the SAT by taking affirmative action criteria into account.

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Half of Juniors Opt Out of Common Core Tests in Affluent High School

More than half of the 11th graders at an affluent high school in Los Angeles County are opting out of new tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards – an ever-growing issue nationwide, but rare so far in California.

Parents in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District are citing concerns about privacy over children’s data and the relevance of the Smarter Balanced Assessments that millions of California students are taking this spring as reasons for opting out.

At Palos Verdes High School, 260 of the school’s roughly 460 juniors are skipping the tests that began last week and are continuing this week, Superintendent Don Austin said. Elsewhere in the 11,600-student district, an additional 222 students are sitting out of the tests in a different high school, as well as intermediate and elementary schools.

“We think it’s fantastic,” said parent Barry Yudess, who leads RestorePVEducation, a parent watchdog group that opposes the Common Core tests.

The state has yet to track this year’s numbers of students who are opting out of the exams, which is allowed under California law. School districts will submit the opt-out reports after testing is completed by June and statewide numbers likely will be available in the fall.

But this is the highest number of opt-outs that California Department of Education officials had heard of so far, said Pam Slater, a department spokeswoman. Smarter Balanced testing began in March, with roughly half of the state’s 3.2 million students taking it so far.

Compared to several other states, California has not been a breeding ground for opposition to the  Common Core standards, the new academic standards adopted by California and 42 other states.

For example, in six large school districts where EdSource is tracking implementation of the Common Core, school superintendents indicated that there has been relatively little opposition and no greater number of parent requests to opt out of standardized testing than in previous years.

In several states, students have opted out in far larger numbers or even walked out of Common Core-aligned tests. In New York, some schools have reported between 60 and 70 percent of students skipping the tests.

On the Palos Verdes peninsula, the district sits along the ocean, with average home prices of $1.5 million, and enrolls just 3 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch.

The RestorePVEducation group got the word out by sponsoring forums with Common Core opponents, putting up a YouTube channel, setting up a Facebook page and sending out emails. But the most effective method likely was handing out fliers and opt-out forms outside of schools, Yudess said.

Yudess and Joan Davidson, a grandmother and another group leader, said they have concerns about the privacy of the data being collected electronically through the tests.

“There really is no good reason to take the test,” said Kimberly Ramsay, the parent of a 7th grader and a senior.

The school district’s website boasts that 98 percent of its graduates enroll in college, so that some parents and students are questioning the relevance of taking a test they don’t see as related to achieving that goal.

“It’s ridiculous,” Yudess said. “They don’t want their time wasted. They are looking at going to top colleges. They are thinking, ‘Why waste my time, taking this meaningless test?’”

School superintendent Austin said he believes most parents decided to opt out their 11th graders after Common Core opponents put fliers on cars, stating that the students could spend more time studying for Advanced Placement tests that students can take for college credit.

During testing weeks, teachers are dividing students by those taking the test and those who are not, and supervising the students who opted out, Austin said.

Austin said he has tried to get answers from the state about the consequences of failing to have enough students take the tests in certain schools. Under the federal No Child Law Behind law, 95 percent of students in certain grades are expected to take annual standardized tests. If they don’t, they are labeled as failing to make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP. Austin said he was unsure how many of his campuses would end up falling below the 95 percent mark until the Smarter Balanced testing is complete.

But there would be no financial consequences. Only schools that receive money for low-income students, called Title 1 funds, might be affected. Palos Verdes is not one of those schools.

Also, high school students might be unable to use their Smarter Balanced scores when applying to California State University campuses and other colleges to prove that they don’t need remedial courses. But there are other ways for students to demonstrate that that they do not need to take remedial classes.

Last week at the Education Writers Association meetings in Chicago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was asked what would happen to states if  large numbers of students did not take the tests. He said that he expected that states would make sure that they did. “If states don’t do that, then we have an obligation to step in,” he said, without detailing any specific actions.

Austin said he has been unable to get good answers about what the consequences will be for his district as a result of  children opting out of the standardized tests. “This is a very, very sophisticated community. They are asking the right questions. Our inability to answer those questions is only adding fuel to the fire,” Austin said. “I do think without some accurate information quickly, it’s only going to get worse and we’re going to end up being a model for the state.”

Originally published by EdSource. 

Louis Freedberg contributed to this story.