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California students show only minimal gains on annual tests


After several years of steady progress, California students made few gains on academic achievement tests last year, according to the latest results released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.

Even more worrisome, the double-digit achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts persists on the annual standardized tests, and does not appear to be linked solely to socioeconomic status.

“These are not just economic achievement gaps. These are racial achievement gaps. We cannot afford to excuse them,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said in a conference call with reporters.

For instance, the gap between white and black students in English language arts has remained at 31 percentage points since 2003, despite gains in that time for both groups. In math, the gap between white and black students has stayed at 28 percentage points, and similar gaps remain between white and Hispanic students.

When scores in the Standardized Testing and Reporting Program are broken down by ethnicity and poverty levels, white students from poor families performed better than black or Hispanic students who are not poor, O’Connell noted.

The state superintendent and other leaders have called the achievement gap the most pressing problem facing California schools, but they have not made much progress in addressing it.

O’Connell said educators need to examine whether they are truly holding all students to the same expectations and whether all schools and all students have access to the funds and teachers they need.

He said it is vital for the state to close the gap, “not just for the moral imperative, but for the economic imperative. These are the subgroups that are growing the fastest in our state.”

Jim Lanich, president of California Business for Education Excellence, said state officials need to stop talking about the achievement gap and actually do something about it.

Education leaders need to “stop making excuses for poor performance and instead learn from high performing schools in high poverty neighborhoods throughout the state and systematically replicate their proven best practices that close achievement gaps,” Lanich said in a statement.

His group has aggressively lobbied the state to change its school ranking system to penalize schools that do not cut performance gaps between ethnic groups.

Legislators have also sought to establish spending equity between districts and even schools. A deal between the state and the California Teachers Association last year is funneling $2.9 billion into some of the lowest-performing schools in the state. Also this year, districts were required to report for the first time how much they spend per student in each of their schools.

But a survey released this week by Public Advocates, a nonprofit San Francisco law firm that lobbies for education equality, found that two-thirds of the schools it surveyed statewide did not comply with the requirement to publish school-level data on per-student expenditures and teachers’ salaries.

Overall, Tuesday’s results showed achievement levels similar to those reported in 2006, with slightly more than four in 10 students scoring as proficient or advanced across all grade levels in English language arts and math. In history tests taken in the eighth and 10th grades, a third of students were proficient or advanced.

The exception to the flat performance was in science, where fifth- and eighth-grade proficiency rates improved by five percentage points in each grade. In 10th grade, the improvement was 1 percentage point.

The leveling off in student achievement also mirrors a nationwide trend.

University of California, Berkeley, education and public policy professor Bruce Fuller reported last month that many states were successful in cutting racial and economic achievement gaps in the 1990s, but those effects have faded since the federal No Child Left Behind Act took effect in 2001. Fuller noted that while the federal law may not have harmed those programs, it hasn’t necessarily helped.

State education officials have repeatedly tangled with federal officials over No Child Left Behind, which they claim is unrealistic in its goal of having all students reach grade-level proficiency by 2013. O’Connell said Wednesday that he is optimistic Congress will approve changes this year so California won’t face the harsh penalties for schools considered failing under the federal law.

The federal law includes escalating sanctions for schools that don’t improve fast enough, ranging from extra tutorials for failing students up to closing schools.

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– Associated Press

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