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California Students Are Still Struggling

Reading and math test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders rank near the bottom in the nation. One official cites language difficulties.

October 20, 2005|Emma Vaughn | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Despite slight gains in math scores, California fourth- and eighth-grade students rank among the lowest nationally in mathematics and reading, test results released Wednesday showed.

With 40% of students below the basic proficiency level, California eighth-graders' reading scores are the third-lowest in the nation after Hawaii and the District of Columbia.

The results are from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which bills itself as "the nation's report card." Federal law requires that the exam, which measures student achievement in specific subjects, be given periodically; the last time was in 2003.

Nationally, the test showed improvements in math and reading for fourth-graders. The results were split for eighth-graders, with math scores increasing slightly and reading scores dropping.

"No matter how you look at this data, California is at the bottom," said Russlynn Ali, executive director of the Education Trust -- West, an Oakland advocacy group that works to improve schools throughout California, particularly those serving low-income and minority students. "There is something systematically wrong with the way we approach educating all students in this state."

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell attributed California's low scores to the number of students permitted to take the test who were learning English.

"We accepted a higher proportion of English-learner students than any other state in the country," O'Connell said. "Our exclusion rate of English learners was 12%, while Texas' exclusion rate was 37.5% and New York's was 29%."

Although math scores in California remain significantly below the national average, there has been consistent improvement over the last 15 years.

Results showed that 28% of California fourth-graders were proficient or better in math, up 3 percentage points from 2003 and 15 percentage points from 1992. Eighth-grade improvement in math was not as significant but managed to be the highest of the decade, with 22% at or above the proficiency level. The results can be found online at

"It is really puzzling because we have grade-by-grade content standards in both reading and mathematics," said Stanford University education professor Michael Kirst. "But it appears that these are only paying off for mathematics. This really calls for a deeper exploration into why mathematics is doing so much better."

More than 640,000 students nationwide were given the 2005 test, which rates academic performance on three levels: basic, proficient or advanced. Department of Education standards define proficient as "demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter."

The top-performing students in both grades and subjects came from Massachusetts, where 44% of students were above the proficiency level in reading.

Despite significant improvements in both tests, the District of Columbia averaged the lowest scores across the board, with 69% of eighth-graders and 55% of fourth-graders scoring below the basic level in mathematics.

California remains near the bottom in part because the exam is not in sync with the content taught in the state's classrooms, O'Connell said.

"Results on our statewide tests, which are aligned to our rigorous standards, indicate that a focus on high expectations is leading to steady gains in student achievement," he said.

Although California's education standards are regarded as the most rigorous in the nation, the state's curriculum is doing little to improve performance, Ali said.

"The state's results clearly demonstrate that we still are not doing what is needed to help these older students build the reading skills they will need to deal with increasingly complex high school courses," said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit education advocacy group.

Overall scores in California reflect many of the national trends, with fourth-graders performing markedly better than eighth-graders in math and reading. Nationwide, math scores among fourth-graders were up for every major racial and ethnic group since the 2003 test.

Some education experts attribute the disparity to a long-term trend of dwindling academic focus on older students.

"It's time we got very serious about bringing reform to our secondary schools, particularly to help older students grasp the critical reading skills they will need to be successful in high school, college and the workplace," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust.

Educators said the scores offered several pieces of good news, including African American and Latino students scoring significant increases in math and reading.

But big gaps remain among ethnic groups, with Asian and white students scoring more than 20% higher than other ethnic groups in every category.

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