State test scores reveal modest growth, persistent achievement gaps
Like hay rides, corn mazes and pumpkin patches, the release of California’s standardized test scores is an annual — if less festive — rite of fall. And like most traditions, while the details may change, the dominant themes recur year after year.

That was the case with the 2017–18 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams which revealed the same modest overall improvement and persistent achievement gaps that have characterized results in recent years. The new and unwelcome twist this season was a regression at the high school level that offset progress among elementary and middle school students.

The SBAC is the foundation of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, California’s standardized testing system. The assessments in English language arts/literacy and math are administered to students in grades three through eight and grade 11. This year, 3.2 million students took the test with 49.9 percent meeting or exceeding grade-level standards in ELA, while just 38.7 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level standards in math. Overall, the performance represented an increase of 1.3 percentage points in ELA and 1.1 percentage points in math from 2017, a year when scores remained largely even with the 2016 results. In total, California students have gained 6 percentage points in both ELA and math since 2015, although the greatest growth came during the second year of the current system when standardized test results usually spike as students adapt to the new exams.

In the news release announcing the latest test results, State Board of Education President Michael W. Kirst pointed to the progress demonstrated by students in the elementary grades as a hopeful sign. Overall, reading scores for third-grade students rose by 4.3 percentage points and by 3.6 percentage points for fourth graders, while math scores in those grades increased by a smaller amount, but still made the largest leap at any grade level.

“That our younger learners who have experienced standard-aligned instruction since kindergarten are improving faster is encouraging,” Kirst said.

Performance at the secondary level, where 11th-grade scores fell by 3.8 percentage points in ELA and 0.8 percentage points in math, was decidedly less inspiring. It’s unclear what drove those results, but analysts speculated that a lack of motivation for students more focused on graduation and college entrance exams was a factor. They also observed that, unlike the younger students, high schoolers have not spent their entire scholastic careers using the Common Core curriculum and standards-based instruction that are aligned with the current test.

Whether one looks at elementary or secondary school, the gradual progress in overall scores has done little to close the achievement gaps separating African-American, Latino and Native American students from their white and Asian peers. In ELA, 76.4 percent of Asian students, 71.2 percent of Filipino students and 64.9 percent of white students met or exceeded grade-level standards, while only 39.3 percent of Latino, 37.4 percent of Native American and 32.3 percent of African-American students cleared that bar. Those numbers reveal a giant 25.7 percentage-point achievement gap between Latino and white students, and an even larger 32.6 percentage-point divide between African-American and white students — a slight decrease compared to the 2016–17 numbers. These gaps persist across all tested grades.

Overall performance in math was weaker than in ELA, and the disparities between student groups were even more pronounced. While 73.5 percent of Asian, 58.5 percent of Filipino, and 53.6 percent of white students met or exceeded grade-level standards in mathematics, only 26.6 percent of Latino, 25.7 percent of Native American, and 19.7 percent of African-American students did the same. These scores reveal a 26.9 percentage-point achievement gap between Latino and white students, which is a slight decrease from the 2016–17 results, and a 33.8 percentage-point gap between African-American and white students, which is unchanged from the previous year.

“There are pockets of success and reasons for optimism in the latest test scores, but those positive indicators are overshadowed by the persistent disparities that keep African-American, Latino and Native American students from reaching their full potential,” said CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “This is a problem not only for these student groups, but for society as whole. Latinos and African-Americans account for roughly 60 percent of California’s student population, so we have both a moral and an economic incentive to ensure that these students receive a high-quality education. It’s imperative that we direct more attention, more resources, and more support to all students, but particularly those who languish on the wrong side of the opportunity and achievement gaps.”

For a deeper look at the recent test results, please see CSBA’s research brief on the topic: 2017–18 CAASPP Results for English Language Arts and Mathematics at

In addition, the fall issue of California Schools magazine takes a closer look at student achievement and inequitable outcomes in a feature article, “The Price of Inequality: The Achievement Gap and the High Cost to America’s Future.”