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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

In a steady but painstakingly slow pattern that has come to define California’s push for equity in education, statewide test scores inched up incrementally this year—though about half of the state’s students are behind in reading, and only 4 in 10 students are proficient in math.

The results of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress tests, administered to some 3.1 million students in grades 3-8 and grade 11, were recently released by the state Department of Education. Now in their fifth year, the scores told more or less the same story of incremental growth they have been telling since the state began using the test to measure student performance under newer, more-rigorous Common Core-based standards. 

On one hand, education officials say, the scores are moving in the right direction: Statewide marks either rose or stayed flat in every reading and math portion of the exam, except for eighth-grade math. On the other, the scores are moving at what some experts and civil-rights advocates have previously described as a glacially slow pace.

The state’s high-school juniors were among the most-improved in reading and math this year, but that rise followed a significant drop the prior year that negated gains made in lower grades. A majority of students statewide, for the first time, were proficient in reading, but more than 49 percent of students still aren’t at grade level.

Though economically disadvantaged students seem to have improved at a faster rate than the rest of their peers in some areas, their passing rates in reading and math remain further behind. For example, 39 percent of the state’s economically disadvantaged students passed the reading exam, and 27.48 percent passed math, while the rest of their peers passed reading (69.48 percent proficiency) and math (58.88 percent passing) at twice the rate.

Achievement gaps highlighted by the exam also remained stark. The state’s black students (33 percent proficiency in reading and 20.55 percent in math) and Latino students (40.56 percent passing in reading and 28 percent in math) far under-performed their white and Asian peers. More than 65 percent of California’s white students passed the reading portion, and 54.23 percent passed math, while nearly 77 percent of Asian students were proficient in language arts, and 74.37 percent passed math.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond spoke with urgency about the situation. 

“Disparities between students of color and their white and Asian peers continue from year to year and demonstrate the importance of our priority initiative of closing the achievement gap,” Thurmond said in a statement. “Education equity should mean equity for all students, and right now, we are not there.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, concurred. “While California is trending in the right direction, the overall pace of progress is sluggish and uneven,” she wrote an op-ed column published Wednesday by EdSource.

Achievement gaps have narrowed between Latino and white students, as well as between poor and more affluent pupils, she wrote, but progress has stalled in older grades; the achievement gap has not narrowed for black students; and math scores remain “at a disappointingly low level.”

Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, said “the results we see are not about students’ inability to learn or succeed; (they’re) about adult decisions that have not supported students over time.”

“Overall, we’re crawling for it as a state in terms of closing the achievement gaps we see. But we’re crawling when we really need to be sprinting,” Arrillaga said.

Results from the test fall into four buckets: “standard not met,” “standard nearly met,” “standard met” and “standard exceeded.” Scores that fall under the latter two achievement levels are considered passing marks.

Over the five years in which California students have taken the exam, statewide reading scores have improved nearly 7 percentage points, from 44 percent proficiency in 2015 to 50.87 percent in 2019. Statewide math scores have gone up at a near-identical rate, from 33 percent proficiency in 2015 to 39.73 percent in 2019.

Julien Lafortune, an education research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said it was “encouraging, in general” that the state’s scores have gradually risen over the last five years, given that the state’s public-school system is the largest in the nation.

“It’s not probably the pace that we would want necessarily,” Lafortune said of the scores, “but it’s easy to forget this is a big system, and there are a lot of moving parts. Big systems tend to move slowly, for better or worse.” 

Lafortune also noted that although math scores have improved slightly, the proportion of students that tested in the math exam’s lowest performance level of “standard not met” increases dramatically in older grades: While 26.75 percent of California third-graders tested in the lowest bucket in math, that percentage rises to 45.48 percent in 11th grade.

Though gaps persist among California’s poor students, they are improving at a faster rate than the rest of their peers. A “cohort” of economically disadvantaged students who took this year’s exams as eighth-graders improved their proficiency rates by 3.36 percentage points in reading, while their peers’ reading scores remained virtually flat over this three-year span. While math proficiency only rose up 0.83 percentage points among this disadvantaged cohort, the passing rate for those not classified as economically disadvantaged went down 1.65 points.

How California’s economically disadvantaged students improve or stagnate on the exam is significant because a new studyby Stanford education researcher Sean Reardon has found that, despite a longstanding focus on school segregation, poverty and the income levels of student’s household are most correlated with gaps in student learning.

California has the nation’s largest public school system, with 6.2 million students, and about 40 percent of the state budget, by law, goes to public schools. That said, the state’s per-pupil investment has lagged nationally, and fell significantly during the Great Recession. In recent years, state spending per pupil has slowly crept up the rankings, but California still is only hovering around average despite a rise from $9,067 to $11,993 per student over the past five years.

The state budget signed in June by Gov. Gavin Newsom included a $2.7 billion increase in the state’s investment compared to last year, including more than $400 million for early education and child-care programs, and $646 million for students with disabilities. 

California’s shift toward more-rigorous standards—and more-rigorous testing—has been in progress for nearly a decade. But a PPIC survey co-authored by Lafortune and released in September found that about 30 percent of the state’s schools, many of them rural, still hadn’t fully adopted Common Core. Even where the new standards are in place, PPIC found, gains have been modest so far.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

California is politically lopsided: Most of the people live in the south, but most of the political power is based in the north.

In recent years, the majority of politicians elected to statewide offices have been northern Californians—including the governor, lieutenant governor, schools superintendent and both U.S. senators.

That could change after November’s election, because a striking number of statewide races this year pit a NorCal candidate against SoCal candidate, testing the political power and competing priorities of the Golden State’s two most populous regions.

But don’t count on it.

Northern California is likely to continue to dominate for reasons that largely boil down to this: People in the Bay Area just vote a lot more than those in Los Angeles. Economic and demographic changes overlap with voting trends, together situating California’s political nucleus in the heavily Democratic region in and around San Francisco.

“There is some built-in disadvantage for statewide candidates coming from the Los Angeles area,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The voter turnout and participation is disappointing in L.A., compared to the rest of the state.”

Even though Los Angeles is the state’s most-populous county, it has the lowest turnout rate for registered voters. Of the 58 counties, L.A.’s turnout was dead-last in the 2014 election and second-to-last in the June primary. Participation is so abysmal in Los Angeles County that voters there actually cast fewer ballots than voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area—even though Los Angeles County has 1.2 million more people registered to vote.

Turnout is better in other populous SoCal counties such as Orange, San Diego and here in Riverside, but still not as strong as in the Bay Area.

“It’s a tale of two economies. Where you have a declining middle class, you have fewer voters and less civic participation,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in Latino voting trends.

Southern California is home to a greater share of Latinos than the Bay Area, and has many more people living in poverty—both characteristics correlated with low voting. Per-capita income is much higher in the Bay Area, and jobs there are being created faster. That not only means people are more likely to vote; it also gives candidates from the region a stronger network for fundraising.

“As the economy has separated, so has our democracy,” Madrid said. “The nine-county Bay Area is becoming whiter, wealthier and older. And that’s creating a power base that is driving the political leadership and discourse for the rest of the state.”

Of course, voters don’t always choose the candidate from their own region, and a home address in the Bay Area is no guarantee of a candidate’s success. Other factors—such as politics, fundraising and the power of incumbency—also come into play.

But with seven of the nine statewide races on November’s ballot featuring a north-south matchup, the question now is whether voters will defy the recent trend.

In the race for governor, the dominance of Northern California was clear when the primary was over in June. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, beat out two fellow Democrats from Los Angeles to face Republican John Cox of San Diego on the November ballot. Newsom is far ahead in the polls and fundraising in a state where just one-quarter of voters are registered GOP.

Given their advantage in voter registration and fundraising, Democrats—no matter which end of the state they live in—are favored to win in statewide contests against Republicans. One test will be in the race for insurance commissioner, which features a Democratic legislator from Los Angeles against a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is running with no party preference. Steve Poizner, who was insurance commissioner from 2006-2010, used to be a Republican but changed his registration to run this year. He splits his time between Silicon Valley and San Diego, and is facing state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat, in this down-ticket race.

Because of California’s nonpartisan election system, some races feature two Democrats, making the outcomes harder to predict. Voters could choose a lieutenant governor who lives in San Francisco—real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis—or one who lives in Los Angeles, state Sen. Ed Hernandez. They could pick a statewide schools superintendent who hails from the Bay Area—Assemblyman Tony Thurmond—or one who helped run schools in Los Angeles, Marshall Tuck. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a former mayor of San Francisco—is fighting a challenge from the left from state Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

“All else equal in terms of platform, and political leanings, if you have connections to the Bay Area, that is considered to be an advantage,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “It’s both the voter strength in the Bay Area and the (fundraising) money that’s present in the Bay Area.”

The dynamic is different for legislative races—where the state is broken into districts with equal populations. Southern California’s large population means the region has many representatives in the Legislature, including the leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly.

But because of the voting trends, many SoCal lawmakers are elected with fewer votes than their NorCal colleagues. Even though Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who lives in Los Angeles County, is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, he was elected by about 89,000 voters in 2016, while several Bay Area legislators got at least 130,000 votes.  

Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, said he’s hoping the energy this year over control of Congress will prompt more Southern Californians to vote. With several contested House races, the region is being blitzed by ads and volunteers reminding people an election is coming up.

“We do have a lot of those swing seats,” he said. “We’re hoping that is influential.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics