California’s Department of Education said Friday that graduation rates and enrollment dropped while absences increased in the state’s public schools last year.
But, with only 25% of students taking statewide assessment tests in 2020-21 as schools scrambled to administer the exams in the midst of the pandemic, it’s impossible to know the full extent of learning loss with students doing remote learning.
“COVID-19 not only created challenges for teaching and learning but also for the administration of the statewide assessments,” the Department of Education said in a statement as it released results of the limited proficiency tests and other data on absenteeism and graduation rates.
Typically, about 95% of eligible students, or 3.2 million, take the assessment tests that measure proficiency in English, math, and other subjects. Educators look to the results and how they compare to previous years to make decisions about education programs and policies. But the department warned that it “is not advisable” to do that this year and analyzing the data should be done with “explicit caution.”
Among those tested, just 49% of students met or exceeded standards in English in 2021. In math, only 34% met that standard and, for science, it was worse, just 29%.
“It’s clear that the learning lag most affected younger children, as we would expect. It’s hard to go to school on computer by Zoom for little kids who are just learning to be focused and work with pencils,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education. “The other thing of course is that we really do know where the kids suffered the most.”
What the data makes clear is the extent to which the pandemic and school closures exacerbated education inequalities.
Chronic Absenteeism, Graduation Rates
Chronic absenteeism, which means a student is away for 10% or more of the school year, jumped dramatically among some groups, including by 8.8 percentage points among migrant students, and 6.8 percentage points for foster youth. Absenteeism also increased for African American and Native American students.
While there was a small dip in four-year graduation rates, the biggest part of that drop was for African American students, whose graduation rates fell by 4.3 percentage points to an overall 72%, followed by American Indian or Alaska Native students whose rates fell nearly 3 percentage points to 73%.
The data also shows a sharp decline in enrollment as the pandemic forced California public schoolers into online learning. The number of students at K-12 schools dropped by more than 160,000 for the 2020-21 school year to 6.1 million students.
It is by far the biggest decline in years. The exodus was led by white students, who account for just 22% of California’s public school population but represent about half of the departing students for the 2020-21 school year.
After the pandemic caused schools in California and around the country to shut classrooms in March 2020, the U.S. Department of Education waived a federal testing requirement for 2019-20 school year. The requirement for assessment tests was reinstated for the 2020-21 school year but certain flexibilities were allowed, including shorter tests and giving tests remotely, the California Department of Education said.
Even with that flexibility, administering the tests was “an insurmountable challenge,” for many school districts because most of California’s 10,000 K-12 public schools were in remote learning well into spring of 2020.
“Many students lacked computers with secure browsers that would allow remote administration of the test, and many more experienced problems with bandwidth that made testing remotely infeasible,” the department of education said.
As a result, the state allowed school districts that could not administer the state assessment tests to give local assessment tests that met specific criteria that was approved by the State Board of Education.
Big Districts Didn’t Test
Most of California’s large urban districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, and San Francisco, remained in distance learning until late spring 2020 and did not give students the state assessment tests. Therefore the biggest school districts in California are not included in the statewide data, but the results of their locally administered tests generally show similar findings, Darling-Hammond said.
Ultimately, just 25% of eligible students, or roughly 736,000, took the state assessment tests. To account for the dramatic dip in participation and allow the state to compare the test scores, the Department of Education did something it has never done before: It matched the scores from students who took the 2021 tests to their own scores in 2018-19.
Those results “show academic progress but at a slower rate than in prior years,” the department said in a statement. “The scores also show a widening of achievement gaps between student groups.”
But it added: “The data is limited in both scope and use” because it does not include the vast majority of students eligible to take the tests.