Comment: This provides an advantage for California’s detailed test data road

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

News of California’s test scores, released in January, seems to fit a pattern familiar around the country. Students’ achievement during the epidemic declined in literacy and was somewhat poor in mathematics.

Take some time to dive deeper into the data and the news is both better and worse than the way we perceived it before.

In English Language Arts, or ELA, students are in relatively good condition, with reading and writing slightly below grade-level standards. The math, however, is a five-alarm fire. Eighth grade students demonstrate fifth grade standardized knowledge and skills.

California has publicly outperformed more states than any other state in the past year. An explanatory guide matched the scores of students tested in 2021 with their achievements in the years before their epidemic. The scores on the vertical scale of the Smart Balanced Test allow us to compare the achievements of all our students as they move from one grade to another.

The chart below shows the ELA achievements of eighth graders in 2021 who are expected to eventually graduate from high school as a 2025 class. Before the epidemic, when they were in fifth and sixth grade, they met with grade-level ELAs, expecting them to miss exams as seventh-grade students in 2020, and their eighth-grade scores to fall slightly below the comparative class by 2021 (dotted line). Shown). Similar patterns are found for matching groups of 5th to 7th grade students

Comment: Detailed test data from California gives it an advantage for the road ahead

Overall, English language art results suggest that it should be possible for primary and secondary school teachers to address unfinished learning as they move forward with grade-level content.

But the trend in math is worrying.

Secondary school students were fighting before the epidemic. Because the state is not following the same class of students as they go through each grade – instead, it has compared an 8th grade class to an 8th grade class the previous year – most school leaders and teachers have never seen such a complex problem.

The chart below shows the math trend of eighth graders taking part in the state exams in 2021. As math becomes more abstract in higher grades, these students fall further behind than grade-level expectations. The epidemic took on a vague problem and made it worse. By the end of the eighth grade, the average student had an indicative score of fifth grade.

Comment: Detailed test data from California gives it an advantage for the road ahead

The disruption of the last two years has further pushed the math students further behind the grade-level standards. Students in the 2025 class who have moved into ninth grade algebra this year are trying to solve linear equations without mastering the three-year incremental prerequisite. Many still have to learn to divide fractions, reason with proportions, and analyze proportional relationships.

Mathematical results indicate a significant loss of learning opportunities. In some cases, this should not be a surprise. Studies have shown that math achievement is more responsive to differences in instruction and quality of education. The students found it difficult to grasp the concepts of mathematics without the adults present during the distance learning. In addition, a study by the University of Southern California found that parents felt less able to help their children with math homework than reading and writing during the epidemic.

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

The road ahead

First, a coalition of state, or 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 Acquisition Partners to help teachers address unfinished learning. But these guides only imagine teachers going back to the previous grade. Materials for embedding support for two to three previous grade prerequisites and know-how do not exist. The expectation of teachers, especially in middle and high school, is that unnecessary pressure on the already tired workforce will bring it out in their own place.

Grade-by-grade, math teachers need a guide from experts who show them how to correct students’ misunderstandings and adjust their curriculum and daily learning. Many high school students will benefit from a double-dose math course where students spend 90 minutes a day with a rigorous and relevant curriculum. Connecticut, another state using smart-balanced tests, has begun to invest in such work, and California should consider how it can join the force.

Second, the state should provide multiple support to secondary school math teachers in the form of sustainable professional education and class coaching. Groups like CORE are working great to offer month-long online courses to help teachers improve their math content knowledge and learning. Such opportunities need to be made available to every teacher in the state.

Third, from now on, states and districts will have to follow the same group of students over time as they go through primary and secondary school. California has taken great care over the past eight years to design standards and exams aligned with college and career-ready expectations. Our ability to see if students are on their way to meeting them should no longer be obscured. When the expected growth is not happening, teachers and families need to know.

Report cards for individual students also need to be changed so that students can see for several years whether they have mastered a subject. Students need to see their progress over time, which shapes the effort, helps them maintain a sense of potential, and orients them to meet standards at certain times this month or this year, if not necessarily.

Finally, state leaders should apply to the U.S. Department of Education for permission to conduct grade-level examinations. Under current federal law, states are required to test students on the content for their current enrolled grades. Due to its adaptive design, the Smart Balanced Assessment is in a good position to test students above and below the grade level, if permitted by the federal government. The new classrooms have created a situation where teaching and testing out-of-grade math standards can be tough. Coming out of the epidemic, the starting points of many students will be different. Federal policy should not ultimately come in the way of helping all students.

The detailed information of California gives it an advantage for the road ahead. In mathematics, urgent action is required. In English, the state should take comfort in knowing that while additional support needs to be formed for students who are lagging behind, many are reading and writing much better than some experts predict.


David Wacklin A consultant At Union Square Learning, a nonprofit that works with school district and charter schools to improve education. He was previously on the National Governors Association team that created the Common Core State Standard.

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