California’s detailed test data gives it an advantage for the road ahead

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

News about California’s test scores published in January seemed to fit a pattern familiar around the nation. Student achievement during the pandemic declined in literacy and was slightly worse in math.

Take some time to dive deeper in the data and the news is both better and worse than we previously realized.

In English language arts, or ELA, students are in relatively good shape, reading and writing only slightly below grade-level standards. Math, however, is a five-alarm fire. Eighth grade students demonstrate knowledge and skills indicative of fifth grade standards.

California publicly released more achievement detail than any other state last year. An interpretive guide matched scores of tested students in 2021 with their achievement in years prior to the pandemic. The vertical scale scores from the Smarter Balanced tests also allows us to compare achievement of all students as they move from one grade to the next.

The chart below shows the ELA achievement of the class of eighth graders in 2021 who are expected to eventually graduate from high school as the Class of 2025. Prior to the pandemic, when they were in fifth and sixth grade, they met grade-level ELA expectations. They missed testing as seventh graders in 2020 and by 2021, their eighth-grade scores fell slightly below a comparison class (shown in the dotted line). Similar patterns hold for matched groups of 5th to 7th grade students.

Overall, the English language arts results suggest it should be possible for elementary and middle school teachers to address unfinished learning while moving forward with grade-level content.

But the trends in mathematics are alarming.

Middle school students were struggling prior to the pandemic. Because the state wasn’t following the same classes of students as they moved through each grade — instead, it compared one 8th grade class to the previous year’s 8th grade class — most school leaders and teachers never saw the compounding problem.

The chart below shows the math trends of the matched eighth graders who took the state test in 2021. As math becomes more abstract in the upper grades, these students fell further and further behind grade-level expectations. The pandemic took an obscured problem and made it more severe. By the end of eighth grade, the typical student had scores indicative of the fifth-grade standard.

The disruption of the last two years has put math students even further behind grade-level standards. The students from the Class of 2025 who moved into ninth grade Algebra this year have been trying to solve linear equations without having mastered three years of cumulative prerequisites. Many still needed to learn to divide fractions, to reason with ratios, and to analyze proportional relationships.

The math results suggest a significant loss in learning opportunities. In some respects, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Research has shown that math achievement is more responsive to differences in instruction and teaching quality. Students without adults present during distance learning found it harder to grasp math concepts. Furthermore, a survey by the University of Southern California during the pandemic showed that parents felt less able to help their kids with math homework than reading and writing.

Seeing the problem is a necessary first step. What should the state and school leaders do differently?

The Road Ahead

First, the state, or a coalition of forward-thinking school districts, needs to bring together the best minds in the country on math teaching and learning to create guides and new curricula.

Great guides have been written by groups such as Instruction Partners and Student Achievement Partners to help teachers address unfinished learning. But these guides only envision teachers dipping back to the previous grade. The materials and know-how to embed support for prerequisites from two to three earlier grades does not exist. To expect teachers, especially in middle and high school, to figure this out on their own places unnecessary stress on an already exhausted workforce.

Grade-by-grade, math teachers need a guide from experts that shows them how to correct students’ misunderstandings, and adjust their curricula and daily teaching. Many middle school students would benefit from a double-dose math course where students spend 90 minutes a day with a rigorous and relevant curriculum. Connecticut, another state using the Smarter Balanced tests, has begun to invest in such work and California should consider how it can join forces.

Second, the state should provide middle school math teachers with multiple supports in the form of sustained professional learning and in-class coaching. Great work is being done by groups such as CORE to offer month-long online courses to help teachers improve their math content knowledge and teaching. Such opportunities need to be available for every teacher in the state.

Third, from now onward, states and districts need to follow the same groups of students over time as they move through elementary and middle school. California has taken great care over the last eight years to design standards and tests aligned to college and career-ready expectations. It should no longer obscure our ability to see if students are on track to meeting them. When growth isn’t happening as expected, teachers and families need to know.

Report cards for individual students will need to change too, so students can see over a span of several years whether they have achieved mastery in a subject. Students need to see their progress over time, which shapes effort helps them maintain a sense of their potential, and orients them to meeting standards at some point, if not necessarily this month or this year.

Finally, state leaders should petition the US Department of Education to permit out of grade-level testing. Current federal law requires states to test students on content for their current enrolled grade. Because of its adaptive design, the Smarter Balanced assessment is well positioned to test students above and below grade level, if permitted by the federal government. New Classrooms has made the case that teaching and testing out-of-grade math standards can be rigorous. Emerging out of the pandemic, so many students will have divergent starting points. Federal policy should not get in the way of helping all students eventually catch up.

California’s detailed data gives it an advantage for the road ahead. In math, urgent action is needed. In English, the state should take comfort in knowing that while it still needs to structure extra support for students who are behind, many are reading and writing much better than some experts had predicted.

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David Wakelyn is a consultant at Union Square Learning, a nonprofit that works with school districts and charter schools to improve instruction. He previously was on the team at the National Governors Association that developed Common Core State Standards.

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