Many California students miss mark in first round of Common Core tests

Fourth-graders at Hagginwood Elementary School in the Twin Rivers School District participate in a readiness exam in February 2014 to prepare for the rollout of the Common Core testing.
Fourth-graders at Hagginwood Elementary School in the Twin Rivers School District participate in a readiness exam in February 2014 to prepare for the rollout of the Common Core testing. Sacramento Bee file

Most California students tested below English and math standards in the state’s first round of Common Core-based tests, including a majority at some Sacramento-area schools that performed well in past years, according to results released Wednesday.

The low results statewide – 44 percent of California students at least meeting English standards and 33 percent achieving math standards – were anticipated by California officials after similar outcomes in other states. But in a data-obsessed era, the marks made education leaders nervous, with some warning parents weeks in advance to discount the scores as nothing more than a starting point as schools adjust to a new teaching model based on Common Core national standards.

Previous tests asked students to answer multiple-choice questions on paper, a system that educators believe gave greater weight to memorization. Under the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments administered last year, students often had to combine several skills to solve a single problem and took computer-based exams that grew more challenging as correct answers were given.

About 41 percent of Sacramento County students met or exceeded English language arts standards and roughly 33 percent of Sacramento County students met or exceeded math standards, similar to the statewide rate. Students in Placer and El Dorado counties fared better than those in Sacramento County, with a majority meeting or exceeding English standards. But none of the region’s four counties, which also includes Yolo, had a majority of students meet math standards.

Education leaders emphasized that the new results cannot be compared to past performance given the dramatic difference between the Common Core-based tests and the old exams. Under the old Standardized Testing and Reporting program in 2013, 54 percent of Sacramento County students scored at or above proficient on English tests in 2013 and about 59 percent of the county’s students scored at or above proficient on math STAR tests.

“The new standards are a challenge for students to learn and for schools to teach, but we are raising the bar,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson on Wednesday.

He said the new standards, which focus on critical thinking, problem solving and real-world practical learning are “part of a larger plan to transform education in California.” The math and English tests, administered to 3.2 million California students in third through eighth grades and 11th grade, will serve as a baseline to measure progress in future years, he said.

Matsuyama Elementary School in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood has long had a high-achieving reputation, but a majority of tested students fell below the English standard on the new exam, as did a majority in math. Results were variable; the school did better than the state in fifth-grade English language arts but worse in fourth-grade math.

Principal Judy Montgomery said her staff is still exploring the results and looking for ways to tailor instruction.

“We’re asking kids to be thinkers, to be problem-solvers and to persevere,” Montgomery said. “We’re not testing with fill-in-the-bubbles.”

In the past, she said, students could look at four multiple-choice answers and quickly eliminate two of them. At that point, they would have a 50 percent chance of getting the right answer if they didn’t already know.

On the other hand, she said, “This test is hard. You have to think. There are multiple steps. You may be asked to do five or six different calculations to solve a math problem.”

Toni Tinker, who has daughters in second and sixth grades at Matsuyama, said she believes younger children will have an easier time adjusting to changes in how subjects are taught. The state is still in the process of sending individual test scores to school districts, which will then have an additional 20 days to send them to parents.

“My daughter in the sixth grade hasn’t gone through that full system of changing over,” she said. “My second-grader will probably be able to do it much quicker.”

At the district level, Roseville Joint Union High School District posted the best English score as 78 percent of its students met or exceeded standards. The lowest English scores were at Robla Elementary School District, where 25 percent of students met English standards.

“The new test results create a sense of alarm for some people,” said Sacramento City Unified Superintendent José Banda. Thirty-five percent of the students in the district met or exceeded standards in English, 29 percent in math.

San Juan Unified students in northeast Sacramento County suburbs fared just below the state average with 42 percent of students at least meeting standards in English and 32 percent in math. But two of its schools – Encina Preparatory High School and Howe Avenue Elementary – posted the worst English scores among large schools in the region, with only 9 percent of students meeting English standards. Both schools have a large number of English learners, 60 percent at Howe Avenue and 35 percent at Encina Preparatory High.

San Juan Unified Associate Superintendent Donna O’Neil said educators aren’t surprised with the results.

“We knew they would have challenges,” she said, adding that district educators had been evaluating students well before the tests.

The district sent an email to community members Tuesday night noting that district officials expected their test scores would be “lower than desired,” as has been the case elsewhere. San Juan officials asked families for patience.

“Everybody from the school district to the state is trying to message that it will take some time,” San Juan Unified spokeswoman Kim Minugh said. “We are asking a lot from our students that we haven’t in the past. The scores aren’t going to reflect our efforts in the classroom immediately. We do need some time.”

The statewide results show that low-income students and English-language learners continued to struggle. Overall, 31 percent of California students from low-income families met or exceeded the standard in English and 21 percent in math, compared with 64 percent and 53 percent, respectively, among other students.

“The achievement gap is pretty startling,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on improving low-income and minority student achievement. “Any conversation about implementing the Common Core has to centralize on what we are doing for our low-income, black and brown students and English learners.”

Smith said his organization will examine the test scores closely to find school districts that are bridging the gap and to shine a light on districts where inequitable implementation of the Common Core exists.

Sacramento City Unified School District officials are reminding parents how different the new test and Common Core Standards are from the former curriculum and test. “We are leaving the mindset of teaching to the test,” said spokesman Gabe Ross. “You don’t just flip a switch and expect overnight that you will see the test results you thought you would see. We are hitting the reset button.”

Other states have experienced a significant performance decline in the first year of the new test. In 2013, the percentage of New York students that scored at a proficient level fell from 55 percent to 31 percent in English and language arts and from nearly 65 percent to 31 percent in math.

The potential for that kind of drop has parents and educators on edge. The California Board of Education has decided not to use this year’s test to determine each school’s Academic Performance Index, a compilation of student test scores that in past years allowed for school comparisons across the state.

“This gives us a good baseline, but it also gives us our marching orders to needing to make change and needing to make improvements,” said San Juan’s O’Neill. “We have our work cut out for us this year.”

A Sacramento parent worries that students without access to technology will suffer in schools' computer-based testing.

Editor’s note: The name of San Juan Unified’s associate superintendent is Donna O’Neil. Her last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Test scores

California released results Wednesday from its first statewide tests based on new Common Core standards. Statewide, less than half of students met standards in English or math. The percentage of students in the region’s largest district that met or exceeded standards at each district:


Students tested



Elk Grove Unified




San Juan Unified




Sacramento City Unified




Twin Rivers Unified




Folsom Cordova Unified




Natomas Unified




Rocklin Unified




Roseville City Elementary




Woodland Joint Unified




Davis Joint Unified




Roseville Joint Union High




Dry Creek Joint Elementary




Washington Unified




Western Placer Unified




Buckeye Union Elementary




Center Joint Unified




Rescue Union Elementary




Galt Joint Union Elementary




Eureka Union School District




El Dorado Union High




Source: California Department of Education

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