Capitol Alert

Does California need a math tutor? Report finds students aren’t so great with numbers

California students might know their A-B-Cs, but they’re struggling with their 1-2-3s.

A July report from the Public Policy Institute of California found students throughout the state are making “significant progress” on English assessments, but experiencing “stalled gains” in mathematics.

The institute found that third graders improved their English test scores by 10 percent since 2015 on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and improved another 10 percent in their scores by sixth grade. The same students performed near the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

But both tests showed a lagging growth in math. While third graders improved by 9 percent on their SBAC scores, continued growth petered out by sixth grade.

Slower math improvement is also prevalent in low-income school districts, the institute noted, continuing that struggling schools need additional money to plump their scores.

“There are almost no state funds for improving math instruction in grades 4 to 8, for instance, and the lack of progress in this subject argues for providing additional help to districts,” wrote the report’s authors, Paul Warren and Julien Lafortune.

In wealthier districts with less than 20 percent of low-income students, schools reported 70 percent proficiency rates. But in districts with 80 percent of students coming from economically disadvantaged homes, proficiency rates hovered around 40 percent. More students in these schools fall “below basic in their grade level” than those that meet grade-level benchmarks.

The test scores reflect the “long, slow process” that California’s reform efforts can take to enact change, the authors noted. The state in 2013 adopted the Common Core Standards in 2010 and the Local Control Funding Formula, which supports low-performing schools by allocating district revenue for support systems.

“California’s K–12 system is enormous and decentralized, with 1,000 school districts, over 10,000 schools, and over 300,000 teachers,” Warren and Lafortune included. “Research has shown that changing the daily practice of K–12 professionals takes time.”

While fewer than half of third graders met or exceeded the grade-level standards for both subjects on the 2018 SBAC test, the analysis determined that California education is generally headed in the right direction.

Third graders in the state are making strides on the SBAC test faster than Oregon and Washington, and the institute said quicker progress is possible with better data tracking and policy solutions. Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed the 2019-2020 budget to include $103.4 billion in K-12 funding, which comes to be $5,000 more per pupil than eight years ago, according to his office.

“As our analysis shows, when relatively small gains are made consistently over time, the cumulative improvement can be significant,” the authors concluded. “Policymakers should focus on whether students, schools, and districts are improving each year. Do schools consistently get better, or are many struggling to find more effective ways of teaching? What does it take to boost the gains of low-income students?“

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.