Why California Middle School Kids Can’t Count

An analysis conducted by EdSource indicates that Golden State eighth graders are performing at a fifth grade level in math

The standardized math test scores of the average California eighth grader in 2021 suggested a fifth grade knowledge and skill level, according to an analysis of the state’s Smarter Balanced tests performed by EdSource.

With such a wide academic gap between where the students are and where they should be, the report raises questions about the effectiveness of traditional additional instruction methods, such as summer school and tutoring.

“We have long known that elementary school teachers struggle to teach math and as a result focus the bulk of their attention on literacy,” Arun Ramanathan, CEO of Pivot Learning, told EdSource. “But we lack a state strategy to get high-quality instructional materials in the hands of teachers and support their ongoing professional learning with high-quality coaching.”

The analysis looked at student performances over time and showed a significant drop in scores since before the pandemic, beginning in third grade when the tests were first administered.

The pandemic, during which most students attended class remotely, marked a drastic decline in progress. Eighth graders finished with scores at the same level as they did on their sixth grade tests two years earlier. There is no seventh grade data for these students because California canceled the Smarter Balanced tests in the spring of 2020 due to COVID.

Progress in math is heavily reliant on cumulative knowledge, or the ability of students to recall and apply skills learned in previous years, so many teachers say the pandemic is the reason for the low scores.

“The results highlight massive gaps in math learning that existed long before pandemic,” Rick Miller, CEO of the CORE Districts, a multidistrict data and improvement collaborative, told EdSource. “Responding with a one-time fix misunderstands what is happening.”

The analysis was produced by David Wakelyn, founder of Union Square Learning, a nonprofit organization with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Wakelyn tracked scores of students in the period from third to eighth grade and compared the results with a pre-pandemic group that took tests in 2019. Smarter Balanced makes this possible given their progressive score strategy, which makes passing the test require a score of 2436 in third grade, 2485 in fourth grade, and so on.

The test’s vertical scale runs from 2350 to 2700.

(Data and image by EdSource)

Last year, the average scores of all groups in the eighth grade were below standard with the exception of Asian students, who were the only group that saw a significant increase in scores during 2021.

Black and Latino eighth grade and low-income students in all eighth grade groups average scores far below passing marks, with scores that were representative of what fourth-graders needed to meet.

Thanks to the pandemic, meanwhile, the study itself should be taken with a grain of salt.

The analysis of the 2021 test scores cautioned against over-interpretation and comparison because less than 24 percent of all California students in grades three through eight and 11 even took the tests. As part of its COVID response, the state allowed individual school districts to choose whether they would give students the Smarter Balanced test or assess their skills locally and most districts chose the latter.

“There’s a wider range of levels where students are right now. Some sixth graders are at third-grade level and some are in eighth grade,” Sandhya Raman, a sixth and seventh grade math teacher at Morrill Middle School in San Jose said. “It’s not impossible to handle, but it is overwhelming in terms of time and resources. It is draining.”

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