California Politics: What happened with state test scores?

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

State test scores were released this week, and as suspected in the wake of the pandemic, they were nothing to brag about.

Two out of three California students did not meet state math standards, and more than half did not meet English standards.

But Monday’s public release of the data almost didn’t happen.

The California Department of Education had initially planned to release test scores later in the year — a break from the past. While test scores are typically released between August and October, state education officials said that this year, they planned to hold off until other data, like absence and suspension rates, were ready.

With an election around the corner — and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond on the ballot — the proposed timing drew criticism.

The Department of Education ultimately reversed course and released the statewide scores ahead of the Nov. 8 election after Edsource legally challenged the decision to delay the results.

The process has forced questions about government transparency and the public’s right to access data pertinent to student achievement amid nationwide concerns about learning loss.

What happened?

Most districts received their test scores this summer, but when Edsource requested the statewide results in September, they reported that the Department of Education declined to release them.

As part of a public records request, lawyers for Edsource, which analyzes the data each year, argued that it was not in the public’s interest to sit on test scores that were already out in communities.


Department of Education officials maintain that the plan was to postpone the release of scores in an attempt to frame them as only one piece of student progress, aiming for a more “holistic view” by coupling the results with other data sets expected later in the year.

School districts, including Los Angeles Unified, moved ahead with sharing their alarming results with families, but without the statewide release, districts could not measure how they were doing compared to others.

Troy Flint, spokesperson for the California School Boards Assn., said that while local leaders had the information, there is still practical benefits to an earlier public release.

This was the first time the public has gotten a clear view of where students stand, as tests were canceled during the 2019-20 school year and districts were allowed to opt out for 2020-21.

“State data helps identify areas of student need that can be used to guide investment during the next state budget cycle,” Flint said. “It’s also important as a factor in parental decisions, as a catalyst for community engagement on addressing student need, and in shaping the public’s view of government transparency.”

As for the Department of Education’s change of heart to release the scores now after all? State officials say they didn’t succumb to public pressure, but that the other data they had hoped to hinge the test scores won’t be ready anytime soon.

Schools were granted more time to certify some of that data, so the initial goal of a comprehensive announcement was no longer “feasible,” said Maria Clayton, a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

Clayton said in an email the goal was always to release scores “as soon as possible, in a way that makes it most useful for parents and school districts for local decision making.”


Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is also up for reelection next month, reiterated a “longer than expected” process for schools, but is largely staying out of it.

“The Governor’s Office isn’t involved in the release of test scores,” Alex Stack, a spokesperson for Newsom said in an email.

Political accusations

Critics, including Republicans hoping to boot Democratic incumbent Thurmond out of office next month, were quick to accuse the state of keeping the scores under wraps because they would not look good to voters.

Monday’s release came weeks after ballots had been mailed out.

In a statement on Monday, State Senate Minority Leader Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) slammed California’s “one-party rule” and attributed test scores to Democratic policy failures.

“It is no wonder these scores were kept under lock and key,” Wilk said.

The Senate Republican Caucus wrote a letter to Thurmond last month, urging him to release the scores. “Sunshine and transparency should never be a political issue,” the lawmakers wrote.

Lance Christensen, the Republican candidate running against Thurmond for superintendent, said “if the numbers were good, we would be shouting them from the rooftops.”

For some, though, it’s water under the bridge. After all, the scores are here now — and they depict serious academic shortfalls.


“I think it validates what we already knew — that the pandemic had an impact on kids,” said Edgar Zazueta, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. “This is our new base line. This is our new reality. I think what will be telling is where we are a year from now. We have some work to do.”

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Accessibility issues

While the state results ultimately made it to the public before the election, the process was complicated.

Thurmond was not on a media call about the results.

Instead, reporters got 30 minutes to ask Deputy Superintendent Malia Vella questions in a Zoom chat last Friday, but without the full data picture, which was still embargoed.

Monday’s state test scores were released just hours after results from a separate, national assessment were publicized — allowing California’s outcomes to be both dwarfed and compared to states that fared worse.

In Friday’s limited media call, Vella laid out strict ground rules for reporters.

“A violation of the embargo will result in your media outlet not having access to preliminary data or media preview in the future, in addition to any other remedies that CDE may choose to pursue,” Vella, who is also a member of the Alameda City Council, said.


The Department of Education has so far rejected two attempts at public records requests filed by the Times regarding the handling of the release of the test scores.

Thurmond declined to comment for this newsletter.

California politics lightning round

— Newsom and state Sen. Brian Dahle traded barbs in the one and only gubernatorial debate.

— A sexual misconduct settlement could threaten #MeToo progress at California Capitol.

— Newsom called for L.A. City Councilmen Kevin De León and Gil Cedillo to resign over racist audio leak.

— George Skelton weighs in on a recent poll that shows support for Newsom despite voter frustrations.

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Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.