California’s K-12 students experienced significant academic setbacks, primarily distance learning, in the 2020-21 school year, showing growing gaps in performance, delayed progress in math and English, increased chronic absenteeism, and a slight decrease in the statewide graduation rate, according to data released Friday dated Friday California Department of Education.
The data provides the most complete picture yet of how California students fared during the pandemic. It contains standardized test scores for third to eighth grade students and high school students, 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 the English-speaking arts, and about two-thirds did not meet standards in math. Black, Latin American, and economically disadvantaged students had significantly lower scores, with more than 60% non-English standards and about 80% non-math standards.
In the English-speaking arts, the failure rate of students in earlier grades was significantly higher than in later grades, suggesting that younger students may be struggling with only reading and writing skills. For example, about 60% of third and fourth graders did not meet English standards compared to about 40% of eleventh graders.
The test results are the first nationwide student performance results available after tests were canceled in the 2019-20 school year when the March 2020 pandemic forced schools to close.
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Some educators, parenting and teaching unions, including United Teachers Los Angeles, were vigilant last spring against taking standardized tests, saying students and families didn’t need the added stress and the results would be unreliable. However, others stressed the importance of collecting assessment data to measure student learning, and the State Board of Education last February voted against a federal government waiver to suspend mandatory standardized tests for a second straight year.
Significant leeway was given to school districts to accommodate the fact that most students still did not attend school in person – abbreviated versions of the statewide tests were conducted and the districts were allowed to submit their own local assessments instead of the statewide tests use.
As a result, fewer than a quarter of students took the nationwide English and math exams, a rate well below the usual years when the vast majority of students take the exams. The test conditions make annual comparisons difficult.
To enable a comparison with previous years, state officials analyzed the test results of the same student cohort year after year. These results show that the students made progress, but more slowly than in previous years.
State officials admitted the numbers highlight the difficulties children face in distance learning.
“The challenges students and teachers faced during the pandemic were multidimensional, disrupting learning and mental health,” said Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, in a press release. “Our goal now is to advance all students.”
The graduation rate after four years decreased from 84.2% in 2019-20 to 83.6% last year. Although the decline was small, it was the second year of slight declines after years of steady growth. The biggest drop was in black students, whose graduation rate fell from 76.8% in 2019-20 to 72.5% last year.
The rate of chronic absenteeism, in which students are absent for at least 10% of the school days, also increased from around 12% to 14%. The increases were even greater for the most vulnerable students, including blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, the nursing and homeless, immigrant students and English learners.
The data adds significant evidence of the harm the pandemic and school closings are doing to student performance. Nationwide studies have repeatedly shown that the most vulnerable students suffer the worst setbacks.
This fall, an analysis of the Los Angeles Unified data by the L.A. Times found deep drops in assessment scores or below grade level in key areas of learning, with Black, Latin American and other high-risk students particularly hard hit.