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California’s K–12 Test Scores: What Can the Available Data Tell Us?

Paul Warren | June 2018


California’s K–12 system relies on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) English and mathematics tests to measure student academic progress and assess school and district performance. This report uses publicly available data to explore trends in student performance during the first three years this test has been in place. Key findings include:

  • In the 2016–17 school year, about 45 percent of 3rd grade students performed at proficient levels both in mathematics and English. In English, the proportion of students meeting proficiency standards rises after 3rd grade. By 11th grade, about 60 percent of students tested as proficient. By contrast, in mathematics proficiency rates fall as students move forward. By 11th grade, only a third score at proficient levels. Achievement levels are much lower for students with disabilities, and low-income and English Learner (EL) students.
  • Overall, 2016–17 scores changed little from 2015–16. This is quite different than in the previous year, when students made large gains. This pattern is consistent across the seven racial and ethnic groups reported by the CDE. The previous higher growth rate may have resulted in part from systemic factors, such as better understanding of the SBAC tests, continued implementation of the standards, and experience with online testing.
  • Scores for low-income students are consistently low across the state, while scores of higher-income students vary more widely by region. The lower scores of regions with larger shares of low-income students reflect not only the performance of the low-income group, but also relatively lower proficiency levels of the higher-income group.

Many things we wanted to learn about student performance could not be measured using the publicly available test data. In particular, it does not provide accurate estimates of achievement growth for major student subgroups. This is a major problem because the SBAC tests were specifically designed to assess such growth. Public data on school and district performance are also problematic—so much so that it cannot be used for calculating school and district gains. The State Board of Education uses similar data to calculate state accountability ratings for English and mathematics, and our analysis raises questions about their accuracy.

These issues warrant the state’s attention. Fortunately, the State Board of Education and the California Department of Education (CDE) are exploring changes in the way accountability measures are calculated. The state should also reexamine how student mobility affects school and district accountability data. In addition, CDE should reassess how it releases annual SBAC test data, with the goal of making it more accessible. To determine how best to meet the current range of data needs, the department should work with researchers and policymakers to revamp its data program.

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