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K–12 Test Scores Vary Widely across Student Groups

Paul Warren October 20, 2017

The 2017 test results for California’s public K–12 school students were essentially unchanged from 2016. But behind the overall results, there were significant differences among student groups. Economically disadvantaged students—mostly those who are eligible for free or reduced price school meals—continued to score far below students not in this category. Students with disabilities and English Learner (EL) students performed at levels significantly below those of low-income students. Gaps in achievement among these groups were essentially unchanged in 2017.

Known as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), tests in English and mathematics are administered to virtually all K–12 students in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 11. Students take the computer-based assessments in late spring each year. The scores are reported across four performance levels. In English this year, 45% percent of students performed at the top two levels, which signal that they are working at or above the state’s standard for proficiency. About 28% of all tested students fell into the lowest performance level, “below standard.” In comparison, fewer students had mastered the mathematics skills needed to meet state standards, with 38% earning a proficient score. More than a third (36%) scored at the lowest performance level.

When we look at the proportion of students in each grade who scored at the two top performance levels on the mathematics test, we see that 47% of third graders meet the standard, while fewer students in subsequent grades meet state standards. By grade 11, only 34% are at the top two levels.


The state’s Local Control Funding Formula recognizes that family income is highly related to student success, and the test results reflect that relationship. Only 33% of economically disadvantaged students in third-grade and 20% in eleventh grade scored at proficient levels in mathematics. For students who are not economically disadvantaged, proficiency rates are more than twice as high—68% in third grade and 48% in eleventh grade. This divide is particularly important because 60% of students tested are economically disadvantaged.

Fewer than one-quarter of third grade students with disabilities or English Learners met the state’s mathematics standard. Performance is lower in the higher grades, and by grade 11 only about 5% of these groups are scoring at proficient levels. These data, however, understate the performance of these students. English Learner students who master English are reclassified as fluent, and are therefore no longer included in the EL group; the testing data show that reclassified students perform at higher levels than native English speakers. Also, newly arrived EL students in grades 3 through 11 tend to lower average EL test scores. These dynamics result in the data showing persistently low EL proficiency rates. A similar dynamic affects special education scores.

The new test scores reemphasize the need to boost outcomes for California’s low-income students. Students who are not considered low-income perform pretty well, yet even this group’s mathematics achievement lags in the higher grades. The data also underscore the need for better information on English Learners and students with disabilities. It is likely that the progress of these students is better than suggested by these scores. The state should consider using the individual student data to develop more accurate measures of progress for EL students and other groups.

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