There was good news and bad news – and in other ways no news at all – in the latest results of standardized tests given each year to California public school students.
It was, for example, no news at all that even though this year’s test was more rigorous than ever before and based on new Common Core standards adopted by this state and 41 others, students from wealthier households and school districts did fine, while those with deprived parents and districts did not.
This was demonstrated by the fact that, for example, kids at the Canyon Elementary School in the well-to-do Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles saw their performances in last spring’s testing drop only two percentage points on the tougher new test, from 95 percent scoring at projected grade levels to 93 percent.
Similarly, an average of 60 percent of students in the wealthy – but not nearly as wealthy – Fresno suburb of Clovis, where most families are white or Asian American, performed at grade levels, while those in two nearby districts with heavy majorities of Latino students came in at an average of 20 and 22 percent in combined English and math scores. Formal name for the new test is the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.
These results perfectly illustrated a fact that educators have long known: Parents and the emphasis they put on education are more important than any other single educational factor. In this way, the scores on the new test were no news at all.
There was also good news. The new tests contain questions that require deeper thinking about themes in literature and the concepts of algebra and geometry. Exams are designed so that no two students should ever be presented with exactly the same test, containing the same set of questions and answers.
This aims to help address longstanding complaints about “teaching to the test,” the practice many schoolteachers have felt forced to adopt over decades of being judged by how well their students perform on standardized tests. The thrust of those complaints was that students were being force-fed rote learning designed purely so they would do well on tests, thus furthering the political and personal goals of teachers, administrators, politicians and public employee unions, all of whom have an easier time of it when students perform better.
With the new test stressing critical thinking and knowledge of basic concepts, rather than answers to specific questions, teachers who want to teach to the test now must emphasize thought and understanding of why the answers to some questions are what they are.
Then there was bad news: The persistent gaps between ethnic groups seen in all previous versions of standardized tests remain with us. In English, 72 percent of Asian students and 51 percent of Anglos tested at grade level or better, while only 28 percent of black pupils and 32 percent of Latinos did as well.
And, proving again the links between economics and education, only 21 percent of students from low-income families scored at grade level in math, while 53 percent of those from more affluent families did. This suggests that the better preschool programs to which wealthier parents often send their children do have lasting effects, generally putting kids at a permanent advantage if their parents can afford to give them a head start.
What’s more, students at schools in the most affluent districts dropped less from levels on the previous California-only tests than those in poor districts. Again, there’s the reality of the advantages conferred by wealthy parents and the disadvantages inflicted on children whose parents must struggle just to feed and clothe and house them.
The saddest part of all this was that the lower scores put up by California kids were neither isolated – scores were lower all across the country – nor a surprise. A field test two years ago indicated exactly the problems that turned up in the first year of full-scale testing. That indicates little or nothing was done to improve matters in the ensuing two years.
Will anything more be done now? Will California legislators, parents and educators accept overall results that indicate only about 40 percent of high school graduates are equipped to pass college-level courses? That remains to be seen.