California sees a surprise drop in student test scores

Test scores at Jordan High School, which posted the largest gains among L.A. Unified's traditional high schools last year, fell across the board this year. Officials there attributed the setback to the midyear departure of the principal, two major outside reviews, a campus reconstruction project and other challenges.
(Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time in a decade, California standardized test scores in English and math slipped this year, flummoxing educators who blame budget cuts and new national learning standards that have required curriculum changes.

Despite the statewide slip in scores, released Thursday, Los Angeles Unified School District largely held its own: Students posted the highest gain in math among 10 large urban school districts and a smaller drop in English than statewide peers.

Scores rose particularly in two grades — sixth and ninth — that have adopted new academic learning standards, even as some educators pointed to them for the statewide decline.


Overall, the percentage of students at grade level in English slipped to 56.4%, from 57.2%, and in math to 51.2%, from 51.5%. Achievement in both subjects had steadily improved since 2004, when only about a third of students performed at grade level.

The uncertainty surrounding the annual scores underscored the dicey nature of predicting student test performance or placing too much stock in year-to-year changes, experts said. Some said it could have been a statistical anomaly.

“It’s very counterintuitive,” L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy said of the state decline. “I don’t know how to make sense of it.”

Schools that might have been expected to slip improved. Miramonte Elementary scored gains in both reading and math despite upheaval over the arrest of a teacher charged with lewd conduct involving students. Several small schools at the Roosevelt and Mendez high school campuses made strong gains even as they experienced the major distractions of reorganization.

And some campuses that made significant progress last year slipped this year. Test scores at Jordan High School, which posted the largest gains among the district’s traditional high schools last year, fell across the board. Officials there attributed the setback to the midyear departure of the principal, two major outside reviews, a campus reconstruction project and other challenges.

Roosevelt, Mendez and Jordan are operated by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit started by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Several elementary schools operated by the nonprofit posted smaller-than-expected gains. Colleen Oliver, its chief academic officer, said assessments throughout the year had indicated that scores would be higher.

Overall, however, the number of Partnership students at grade level in reading, math, science and history increased. “There are some areas where I’m scratching my head,” Oliver said. “It did make me wonder whether there is something happening with this state test.”

But John Rogers, a professor with the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, cautioned against reading too much into one year’s scores — particularly at individual schools, where students and teaching conditions can easily change.

“There shouldn’t be too much concern about a blip this year,” he said. “If this becomes a trend in three years with a stalling out or continued decline, that would raise serious concerns.”

Deasy, Oliver and others credited teachers for the steady performance despite widespread cuts during the recession. The state has slashed $20 billion from campuses in the last five years, resulting in the loss of 30,000 teachers, a shorter academic year, larger classes and cutbacks in summer and after-school programs and other offerings.

“In the midst of the ridiculous recession, we made progress,” Deasy said. “This is all due to teachers. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Assn., said the statewide fall in scores was not surprising amid budget cutbacks. But he called the overall improvement of the last decade a “success story ... that’s a testament to teachers.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson additionally blamed the decline on the state’s transition to the new Common Core national learning standards. Those standards aim to challenge students by presenting less subject material but teaching it more deeply and are being phased in across the state, for full introduction by next fall.

“As you would expect for a school system in transition, results varied ... but the big picture is one of remarkable resilience despite the challenges,” Torlakson said in a statement.

In L.A., however, Deasy said the students who shifted this year to Common Core standards made the greatest improvement. Among ninth-graders, for instance, the percentage at grade level in English rose to 45% from 40%, and in algebra I to 31% from 27%.

Despite such gains, the district failed to achieve its ambitious performance goals, falling far short of targets for English, math, algebra and third-grade English. Overall, 48% of students were at grade level in English and 45% in math. L.A. Unified schools have always lagged behind the state, but the district typically has improved at a faster rate.

Deasy singled out Hoover Elementary, King Middle School and Venice High School to praise for impressive improvements.

Statewide, the test results showed no gender differences in math, but girls outperformed boys in English. The achievement gap between students who are African American, Latino, low-income and limited in English and their white and Asian peers showed little sign of closing, however, remaining largely unchanged between 2003 and 2013.

Less than half of African Americans and Latinos were at grade level in English and math, compared with three-fourths of Asians and more than two-thirds of whites.

Elsewhere, the percentage of students at grade level in both reading and math fell in six of the state’s 10 largest districts. The largest declines came in Santa Ana Unified, but districts with small slippage in both subjects included Fresno Unified, San Bernardino City, Corona-Norco Unified, Capistrano Unified and Elk Grove Unified. San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified made the greatest gains in reading, while L.A. Unified and San Francisco Unified did so in math.

About 4.7 million students in grades 2 to 11 took the annual standardized tests this year. The subjects covered include English and basic math until students move up to more specific courses, such as algebra or geometry; various history and science courses also are included. The tests include five performance levels, ranging from “far below basic” to the desired levels of “proficient” and “advanced.”

Torlakson said that many students will be shifting to Common Core tests this year, marking the likely end of the 11-year California Standards Test.

Times data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.