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K–12 Test Scores Vary Widely across Student Groups

By Paul Warren

The 2017 test results for California’s public K–12 school students underscore the need to improve outcomes for economically disadvantaged students, English Learners, and students with disabilities.

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Testimony: Accurately Assessing College Readiness

By Olga Rodriguez

A more equitable and efficient system for assessment and placement at the community colleges is a vital step in helping all students achieve their academic goals.


Math Placement in California’s Public Schools

By Niu Gao, Sara Adan

Last year, the California Legislature passed a new law—the California Mathematics Placement Act—to address widespread concern over equity in the math placement process. The law is aimed at improving the measurement of student performance in order to move more students successfully through the high school curriculum. In this context, we surveyed California’s school districts during the 2015–16 school year to examine their placement policies right before the law took effect and to identify district needs for technical assistance while implementing the new law. We found that:

  • Districts need help in determining how to proceed. Because the law leaves many details open to local interpretation, many districts are unsure about how to handle certain key elements. Teacher recommendations are a good example. Our survey indicates that the majority of districts have relied on recommendations as an important factor in determining placement. But the law now restricts their use. Improving the law’s clarity is critical going forward.
  • Despite uncertainties, most districts are implementing the new law. Among our respondents, 86 percent reported having a systematic math placement policy. Sixty percent said they are somewhat or very familiar with the new law. Among these districts, 51 percent said they were already in compliance and 42 percent reported revising their policies for compliance purposes.
  • Across districts, there is a strong need for valid, reliable, and objective performance measures. This need applies both to assessing student performance and to evaluating district policies. Districts with the largest gains in student course outcomes over a 10-year period provide some insight. These districts are more likely than others to emphasize test scores, math GPA, and overall GPA when assessing student placement. They are also more likely to use end-of-year math grades to evaluate district placement policies.
  • Districts face a number of other challenges. Districts’ concerns range from handling parental expectations, to needing evidence-based performance measures, to creating better policy alignment within and across schools. In addition, equity issues and staffing shortages present ongoing challenges for many districts.

We recommend several actions for helping districts comply with the law and improve their math placement process. These include establishing evidence-based measures, refining the approach to teacher recommendations, and identifying effective placement protocols. In the longer term, districts would benefit from using student data to improve equity issues and from increased staffing, especially in rural and high-need districts.


Improving College Graduation Rates: A Closer Look at California State University

By Kevin Cook, Jacob Jackson

Low college graduation rates come at a high cost—lower salaries, lower tax revenue, and fewer college graduates in the workforce. At California State University (CSU), the nation's largest university system, graduation rates have an outsized financial and economic impact on students and the state.

CSU has made strides in improving graduation rates, but there is more work to be done. The system continues to struggle with graduation gaps—underrepresented students are much less likely to complete their degree compared to their peers, and these gaps have not narrowed over time. Also, CSU's on-time (four-year) graduation rates still lag behind those of similar universities nationwide.

By 2025, CSU aims to further increase graduation rates while cutting graduation gaps in half. To assist campus planning for this goal, we identify several promising programs and policies. More broadly, the CSU Chancellor's Office must work with campuses to evaluate and expand successful efforts, and the state must play a role in supporting new policies to move the needle on graduation gaps and on-time graduation.


High-Need Students and California’s New Assessments

By Laura Hill, Iwunze Ugo

The 2014–15 school year was the first in which the Smarter Balanced assessments (referred to here as the SBAC) were administered statewide. While educators and policymakers agree that multiple measures over multiple years are the best way to gauge student, school, and district performance, the first-year SBAC results provide an important baseline for assessing implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs).

These results may also have implications for the evolution of accountability measures at the district and state levels—especially in relation to high-need students. The California State Board of Education has not yet devised a replacement for the Academic Performance Index (API), which was suspended in the 2014–15 school year. Districts have developed goals and measures in their LCAPs but the rubrics that state and the county offices of education will use are not yet in place. In the meantime, a close look at the results of the first year of testing can help us track achievement gaps between student groups and identify districts and schools with the largest tasks ahead.

One of the major goals of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is to help districts address a long-standing achievement gap between high-need students—economically disadvantaged students and English Learners (ELs)—and other students. However, we find that the test score gap is larger for 4th-grade EL and economically disadvantaged students when measured with the SBAC than with the state’s prior assessment (the California Standards Test, or CST). Generally speaking, as the share of high-need students in a district or school increases, the proportion of students meeting the standards falls. However, when we compare results across demographically similar schools and districts, we find that some schools performed better than expected.

Results for English Learners are particularly useful for local and state policymakers as they implement new EL standards and consider how to revise reclassification standards. Notably, in a relatively large number of schools, no EL students scored at or above the standards for English language arts (ELA) and math. In the past, 30 percent of districts required ELs to meet the ELA standard on the CST to be reclassified.

Our main conclusion is that high-need students are far behind other student groups—indeed, they may be farther behind than we thought. Schools and districts can use this analysis to take stock of their implementation of the Common Core and their progress toward their LCAP goals for EL and economically disadvantaged students. And schools and districts with large gaps—especially those performing below expectations—can find examples of similar districts and schools that exceeded expectations.

blog post

Students Struggle on Test of New Standards

By Laura Hill, Iwunze Ugo

On California’s first statewide tests aligned with the Common Core standards, 40% of fourth-graders scored proficient or better on the English Language Arts (ELA) test and 35% did so in math.

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