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Report · April 2017

Student Achievement and Growth on California’s K-12 Assessments

Laura Hill and Iwunze Ugo

This research was supported with funding from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.  

California’s recent emphasis on local control for public K-12 schools recognizes that the work of improving student performance is largely the responsibility of school districts. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) provide the resources and structure to help districts meet their goals, with a particular focus on closing achievement gaps. Yet in the first few years, LCAPs have been criticized for having poorly articulated goals, especially for high-need students. Now that two years of data from California’s new standardized test are available, we are in a better position to evaluate early implementation of both the Common Core State Standards and the new Local Control Funding Formula, particularly its impact on economically disadvantaged students and English Learners.

We find that California’s school children did much better in the second year of the new statewide standardized tests, though achievement gaps have not substantially narrowed.

  • About 49 percent of students met grade-level achievement standards in English Language Arts, while 37 percent met the standard in Mathematics. Compared to the other large states using the same test, those shares were somewhat lower, but California’s increases from the year before were nearly twice as large.
  • Economically disadvantaged students and English Learners also largely showed improvement in the shares of students meeting the standards-although those increases were not at rates fast enough to close substantial achievement gaps with students who are not disadvantaged.
  • High-need districts (where over 55 percent of students are economically disadvantaged or English Learners) saw lower levels of achievement on average, with about 33 percent of students meeting the standards compared to about 60 percent for districts with fewer high-need students.
  • While most districts saw similar growth regardless of their share of disadvantaged students, districts with low levels of achievement and growth tended to have higher shares of high-need students. These results are especially troubling because they indicate that disadvantaged students are falling further behind.

Another way to understand school and district performance is to compare performance after adjusting for student demographics. We find that the districts and schools that either exceeded or failed to meet expectations according to estimates based on their student demographics often differed from those identified as outliers by the state’s new academic accountability measure. We also find that some schools have exceeded or failed to meet expectations repeatedly over the past several years. Finally, we find that results at many schools outperformed or-more often-lagged behind the overall results in their districts.

This report can help districts assess student performance-overall and for high-need students in particular-compared to other districts with similar demographics. The districts and schools with better-than-expected performance on the Smarter Balanced tests can be a valuable resource to the districts and schools that are still struggling to implement the new state standards and adapt to their new responsibilities to improve their own accountability plans.


K–12 Education