COVID-19 slowed learning outcomes, widened gaps among California students

iNDICA News Bureau-

California’s Department of Education (CDE) has released student performance data that provide baseline indicators of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected schools and students. An analysis of the data shows slower academic progress than in previous years and a widening of the achievement gaps between groups.

To prevent the spread of the virus before vaccines were developed and distributed, most students had to learn from home for most of 2020-21, returning to campuses only in the spring last year, often with hybrid (in-class and remote) instruction.

The CDE said the 2020-21 data affirmed both the challenges created by the pandemic and California’s commitment to helping students recover from COVID-19 via a bold slate of historic investments in student learning, health and well-being.

The $123.9 billion education package signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in July provides the highest level of K–12 funding in history, including expansion of after-school and summer programs to accelerate learning and the creation of full-service community schools to address student mental health and wellness needs.

Yesterday’s data release consisted of results from the 2020-21 administration of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), which includes Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments for English language arts and mathematics; the California Science Test; the California Alternate Assessments for English language arts, mathematics, and science; and the California Spanish Assessment as well as the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC). It also included information on high-quality interim and diagnostic assessments, chronic absenteeism, discipline data and graduation rates.

Grade-level Smarter Balanced results in math and English language arts generally showed academic progress but at a slower rate than in previous years. The scores also showed a widening of achievement gaps between student groups.

The data are limited in both scope and use. COVID-19 not only created challenges for teaching and learning, but also for the administration of the statewide assessments. The results are available to the public and posted on the CDE Test Results for California’s Assessments website.

To provide essential background and factors to consider when interpreting California’s 2020–21 statewide assessment results, the CDE created a new interpretation guide, which can be found on the CDE California Assessment Results News Release web page.

Although the federal testing requirement was waived for the 2019-20 school year, in 2020-21 the U.S. Department of Education required states to administer statewide academic assessments in English language arts, mathematics and science as well as the English language proficiency assessments, with some accommodations.

To ease administration of the assessments and lessen the impact of standardized testing on students at a difficult time, the California State Board of Education approved shorter versions of the Smarter Balanced English language arts and math tests.

To account for uneven participation when analyzing the information, the CDE matched the scores from the 2021 cohort of students with their own scores in 2018-19 and over their school careers. This is the first time CDE has released matched cohort data. These analyses show that the rate of gain was lower for the 2021 cohort and that the differentials were greater for younger students than for older ones.

The statewide four-year cohort graduation rate showed a decline of 0.6 percent, to 84.2 percent. The cohort rate examines the number of students who start together as freshman and graduate four years later.

The five-year graduation rate increased slightly, by 0.3 percent to 87 percent. The statewide suspension rate hit an all-time low, as might be expected for a year of mostly remote learning. And the statewide chronic absenteeism rate increased 2.2 percentage points in 2020-21 to 14.3 percent. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more of school days per school year. More information can be found on the CDE COVID-19 and Data Reporting web page.

More information about data gathering for the unusual year is available on the CDE COVID-19 Accountability FAQs web page.

“Our road ahead is clear: we must continue to focus our energy and resources in supporting our students, families and educators so they not only recover from the impact of COVID-19, but thrive in days ahead,” State Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond said.

“This must remain our top priority,” she added, thanking the state legislature and Governor Newsom for last year’s “historic education package” that provided a record level of funding to help transform California’s system to one “dedicated to addressing all impacts of COVID-19 on our students — academic, behavioral, social-emotional and physical.”

To help schools accelerate learning during the 2020-21 year, the governor signed Assembly Bill 86 on March 5, 2021, which provided $4.6 billion (of $6.6 billion in total funding) to expanding student supports.

Schools used those early funds to expand educational opportunities for the summer and the following school year. According to summer data released by the State of California Safe Schools for All Hub, 89 percent of school districts reporting offered new learning opportunities over the summer, including learning acceleration (e.g., high-dose tutoring), enrichment and mental health services.

State superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond said: “The statewide performance data from last year confirm what we heard from school districts and county offices throughout the year, namely, the challenges that students and educators faced during the pandemic were multi-dimensional and disruptive to learning and mental health. Our goal now is to move all students forward and I am putting forward a bold agenda to address long-standing inequities that have caused disproportionate learning gaps for students of color and other student groups in California.”