Why EdSource pushed for the release of California test scores

Credit: Anne Vasquez / EdSource

The author’s daughter takes a math test over Zoom in the parking lot of a Los Angeles-area community college, after a power outage at home cut off internet access.

As a parent, I’ve never put too much stock in standardized tests. My children are more than the sum of how they perform on a test on any given day. Instead, my husband and I have placed higher value on hard work, progress and the ability to overcome challenges. 

That’s never been more true than during the pandemic. Over the last 2.5 years, we all — parents, educators and policymakers — have had to recalibrate what “success” looks like.

But as we begin to emerge from a global health crisis that stripped many schools of in-person instruction for more than a year, followed by a school year that was anything but normal, test scores are more crucial than ever. They serve as an indicator of how student learning was affected during the pandemic and, more importantly, can help identify where the needs are greatest to ensure students can achieve what they’ve missed.

That’s why EdSource last month took the unusual step of filing a request with the California Department of Education (CDE) under the California Public Records Act for the expedited release of the 2022 Smarter Balanced test results. The last full year of results is for the 2018-19 school year. California suspended the tests in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic began, and allowed school districts in 2021 to replace the state tests with local assessments.

On July 11, I received an email from my children’s school district in Southern California, giving parents access to their students’ test scores from the spring 2022 assessments, which are part of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System.

I knew the test scores would likely show what I already suspected: My children, who were in 4th and 9th grade when the world shut down in March 2020, lost some ground over the last two years in key academic areas. 

How could they not? 

I watched from my dining room during the 2020-21 school year as my then-5th grader sat in front of the computer on Zoom from 8:30 to 2 p.m., silently doing her work. She rarely raised her (virtual) hand to ask a question. 

It broke my heart to watch because my daughter has never been one to blend into the background. Despite the best efforts of top-notch teachers, I watched her bright inner light dim that school year, as I described in a column at the time. For his part, my son enjoyed the flexibility that distance learning offered but was in for a shock when he returned to in-person instruction during his junior year, arguably the most academically challenging and stressful time for many students.

Another indicator of the pandemic’s impact came when my daughter was set to start middle school. The district requires placement tests for English and math. I didn’t question it when, on the night before the first day of middle school, my daughter’s schedule showed Honors English and “regular” math. I trusted the process and figured she needed to review and establish a new, strong foundation for math concepts. (Other parents were less understanding and demanded retakes of the exams, which, in most cases, ended with similar results.)

And this is in a high-performing school district. 

What about those students who didn’t have the luxury of having parents at home to help make the most of distance learning? What about those students who already were on the margins before the pandemic, only to slip deeper between the cracks?

It’s imperative to know where students stand, sooner rather than later. Test scores are a piece of that puzzle. 

Since California first began administering the Smarter Balanced assessments in 2015, EdSource has annually analyzed the results, creating easy-to-use databases that allow the public to look up a school’s scores and compare them to other schools or districts. 

Typically, obtaining the data from the state has required EdSource staff working through normal communication channels with state education officials. The data has typically been released as early as the last week of August and as late as the first week of October. The sole exception was the 2020-21 school year, when the limited results were released in January 2022 with other dashboard data.

It seemed safe to assume the latest statewide test data — the first complete results since before the pandemic — would arrive soon after the start of the school year. Each day that passes, after all, is one less day for schools to put Covid relief dollars to use in the most critical areas. Being able to compare local scores to the statewide average can help identify important gaps.

After learning the results would be delayed and released later this school year with other dashboard data, EdSource filed a public records request. When that request was denied, EdSource attorney Duffy Carolan, of the law firm Jassy Vick Carolan, on Sept. 21 sent a five-page legal analysis challenging the CDE’s decision. 

Several districts — including Los Angeles Unified, Palo Alto Unified, Sacramento City Unified and others — have released their scores, showing significant drops in math and English language arts compared to the 2018-19 school year. That decline was telegraphed earlier this year, when the state released the limited test results of the 2020-21 school year, showing a drop in achievement after five years of gradual improvement before the pandemic. Based on the National Assessment of Education Progress, other states also are expected to show record declines compared to pre-pandemic years.

EdSource last week was pleased to learn the CDE reversed course, and it now plans to release the test scores this month. Understanding where we stand is not about laying blame; a global pandemic upended the lives and education of so many. 

What matters most is knowing where we’re going — and how we’re going to get there.

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Why EdSource pushed for the release of California test scores

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