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California: Moving the Needle on the Achievement Gap

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May 17th, 2018

The state of California has implemented a number measures to close one of the largest and most persistent achievement gaps in the nation.

Recently released scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide test for fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading given every two years, show that California’s students are still performing below the national average. There was some growth, like an upturn in eighth-grade reading scores from 259 in 2015 to 263 in 2017, but this particular score is still well below the nationwide “proficiency” level of 280.

Moreover, the 2017 results reveal a stagnant achievement gap for the California’s subgroups: black and Latino students, for instance, scored almost 30 points lower than their white and Asian peers on the aforementioned eight-grade reading portion of the test. This gap between California’s high and low-performing students has remained mostly unchanged for over a decade.

California’s Department of Education (CDE) has taken a number of measures to close the achievement gap, including implementing the California School Dashboard, the state’s accountability and assessment system. The state’s accountability model exists under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), legislation approved in 2013 that gives districts more control over state funds and increases funding for districts supporting at-risk students and student subgroups.

While the new dashboard was met with apprehension, LCFF has contributed to narrowing the achievement gap. In February, researchers Rucker C. Johnson, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Sean Tanner, Senior Researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, released a study that found increased funding for students in low-performing subgroups led to tangible improvements in graduation rates state-wide:

Authors found similar graduation-rate improvement for students from low-income families and by race/ethnicity: a $1,000 increase in per-pupil revenue from the state causes a 6.1 percentage-point increase for children from low-income families, 5.3 percentage-point increase for Black children, 4.2 percentage-point increase for non-Hispanic White children, and a 4.5 percentage-point increase for Hispanic children.

For a state serving more than 6 million students in its K-12 public school system, with 60 percent classified as poor or English-learners, the research points to promising long-term improvements if more funding was readily available.

The primary component determining how the LFCC allots funding is the state’s dashboard. The dashboard was created to decentralize emphasis on test-scores in lieu of a more holistic approach to examining student performance, but many educators found the 5×5 color grid confusing and not completely indicative of why achievement gaps have persisted. Critics have also said that the schema determining how funds are allocated is bewildering.

Various indicators, like absenteeism and English Learner Progress, often negate each other. Factors for student performance, including chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness is weighed with the performance of student groups, such as low-income and foster students, and English learners.

A district that has an achievement gap for specific subgroups in reading or math may not receive extra funding because it has a higher graduation rate for all of its students. One report estimates that over 600 districts with significant achievement gaps for black and Latino students will not receive county help because the dashboard’s scoring system does not put them into “the red.” As a result, low scores are no longer the sole indicator that counties need to provide districts with additional support.

The unfortunate reality is that state funds, and significant amounts of it, is the best way to truly tackle the achievement gap for diverse subgroups statewide. When funding is spent wisely, it goes into innovative programs like data-driven assessments and early invention, which often address social inequities and a lack of access for young students.

Some districts went so far as to apply for education grants from CDE to tackle the problem head-on. Earlier this month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced that the CDE awarded $2.5 million in grants to two districts trying to narrow the achievement gap for their at-risk populations. The grants are intended reduce the gap, particularly for Latino and African American students.

“The San Diego County Superintendent of Schools and the Santa Clara County Office of Education will receive the funds to focus on English learners, African American students, and students with disabilities, who rank lower in test scores, high school graduation rates, and other measures,” according to the CDE statement.

Other counties have found success with their individualized improvement plans. The San Mateo County Office of Education, for instance, launched its Achievement in Motion initiative. San Mateo implemented data-driven assessments and student information systems, amongst other strategies, to uncover early achievement gap indicators and inform decision making to hit improvement targets. In turn, a culture of continuous improvement has narrowed the achievement gap for the county’s students of color, students living in poverty, English learners, and other subgroups, to a degree.

San Mateo County’s success is a blip in comparison with the complex and enduring problem California is facing with its achievement gap. If Johnson and Tanner’s research indicates more funding is key to making substantial improvements to the gap, California’s next governor will need to reassess the state’s financial obligations and push for fiscal transparency amongst districts after November’s election. Nonetheless, the programs that San Mateo, and San Diego and Santa Clara counties implement with LFCC funds will be crucial for other schools and districts planning to narrow their own achievement gaps in coming year.


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