Struggling California students fell further behind during pandemic, state report finds

California’s public school students struggled with online learning during the 2020-21 school year, with students who were already behind falling further behind, according to new data released by the state.

Absenteeism also went up in 2020-21 and graduation rates dipped slightly, the state reported Friday, Jan. 7.

The California Department of Education released data looking at how the state’s students performed on standardized tests, as well as graduation rates, absenteeism and student discipline. It’s the first such look at how students did during a school year dramatically disrupted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The state dashboard shows less than half — 49.01% — of third- through eighth- and eleventh-grade students tested met or exceeded California standards for English Language Arts and slightly more than a third — 33.76% — did the same for math.

“Our road ahead is clear — we must continue to focus our energy and resources in supporting our students, families, and educators so they not only recover from the impacts of COVID-19 but thrive in days ahead,” state Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond is quoted as saying in a Department of Education news release announcing the release of the data.

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  • In Los Angeles County, 48.02% of students met or exceeded the state’s ELA standards, and 30.98% met or exceeded the standards for math.
  • In Orange County, 60.98% of students met or exceeded ELA standards, and 42.9% met or exceeded math standards.
  • In Riverside County, 39% of students met or exceeded ELA standards, and 20.65% met or exceeded math standards.
  • And in San Bernardino County, 42.41% of students met or exceeded ELA standards, and 22.8% meting or exceeded math standards.

Achievement gaps for Black and Hispanic or Latino students grew as well, according to the education department.

There were no tests during the 2019-20 school year, as the pandemic interrupted testing, which normally takes place in the spring. In the 2018-19 school year, however, 51.1% of California students met or exceeded ELA standards, and 39.73% met or exceeded math standards. The pandemic brought an end to five straight years of improvements in statewide test scores.

State officials warned Thursday that the latest numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as only about a quarter of students in the grade levels evaluated took the standardized tests during the 2020-21 school year.

Graduation rates have fallen slightly during the pandemic, dipping 0.6 percentage points to 84.2% of students graduating after four years in high school. (The five-year graduation rate went up at the same time, by 0.3 percentage points to 87%.)

But the pandemic made things worse for groups with already lower graduation rates:

  • 72.5% of Black students graduated in four years, down 4.3 percentage points
  • 73% of American Indian and Native American students graduated in four years, down 2.8 percentage points
  • 81.7% of Pacific Islander students graduated in four years, down 2.6 percentage points
  • 55.7% of foster youth graduated in four years, down 2.3 percentage points
  • 79.4% of migrant children (those who change schools during the year, often as their parents follow work in agriculture, fishing, dairy or logging industries) graduated in four years, down 2.1 percentage points
  • 67.1% of English-language learners graduated in four years, down 1.9 percentage points
  • 80.5% of Hispanic or Latino students graduated in four years, down 1.6 percentage points

With most students attending school at least some the year by sitting in front of their computers, Chromebooks or smart phones, chronic absenteeism also rose in 2020-21, with 14.3% of students absent at least 10% of instructional days. That’s a rise of 2.2 percentage points in one year. And every student group that already had high chronic absenteeism rates saw even bigger jumps last school year, including an 8.8 percentage point rise in chronic absenteeism for migrant students.

But with so few students in physical classrooms before the spring, when some districts and campuses reopened, suspension rates plummeted, going from 2.5% of students to 0.2%. Foster youth, 11.9% of whom were suspended during the 2019-20 school year, still saw higher rates of suspension, with 1.2% of them being suspended during the 2020-21 school year.

“The statewide performance data from last year confirm what we heard from school districts and county offices throughout the year,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is quoted as saying in the Department of Education news release. “The challenges that students and educators faced during the pandemic were multi-dimensional and disruptive to learning and mental health. Our goal now is to move all students forward.”

And potentially the most serious issue for the future is the loss of 159,681 students in California’s public schools, going from 6.3 million students enrolled in 2019-20 to 6.1 million in 2020-21. The state has continued to fund school districts based on their 2019-20 enrollment and attendance figures, even as families pulled their students out of school or students dropped out during the pandemic. But funding levels will again be tied to enrollment beginning next fall, setting the stage for districts to lose millions of dollars all at once, potentially setting the stage for mass staffing cuts.

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