California’s Department of Education said, Friday, that only 25% of students took statewide assessment tests in 2020-21 as schools scrambled to administer the exams in the midst of the pandemic.
The low participation rate makes it impossible to know the full extent of learning loss statewide during a year when most of California’s classrooms were closed and students were doing remote learning.
“COVID-19 not only created challenges for teaching and learning but also for the administration of the statewide assessments,” the Department of Education said in a statement as it released results of the limited proficiency tests and other data on absenteeism and graduation rates.
Typically, about 95% of eligible students, or 3.2 million, take the assessment tests that measure proficiency in English, math and other subjects. Educators look to the results and how they compare to previous years to make decisions about education programs and policies. But the department warned that it “is not advisable” to do that this year and analyzing the data should be done with “explicit caution.”
Among those tested, just 49% of students met or exceeded standards in English in 2021. In math, only 34% met that standard and for science it was worse, just 29%.
“It’s clear that the learning lag most affected younger children, as we would expect. It’s hard to go to school on computer by Zoom for little kids who are just learning to be focused and work with pencils,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education. “The other thing of course is that we really do know where the kids suffered the most.”
What the data makes clear is the extent to which the pandemic and school closures exacerbated education inequalities.
Chronic absenteeism, which means a student is away for 10% or more of the school year, jumped dramatically among some groups, including by 8.8 percentage points among migrant students, and 6.8 percentage points for foster youth. Absenteeism also increased for African American and Native American students.
While there was a small dip in four-year graduation rates, the biggest part of that drop was for African American students, whose graduation rates fell by 4.3 percentage points to an overall 72%, followed by American Indian or Alaska Native students whose rates fell nearly 3 percentage points to 73%.
After the pandemic caused schools in California and around the country to shut classrooms in March 2020, the US Department of Education waived a federal testing requirement for 2019-20 school year. The requirement for assessment tests was reinstated for the 2020-21 school year but certain flexibilities were allowed, including shorter tests and giving tests remotely, the California Department of Education said.
Even with that flexibility, administering the tests was “an insurmountable challenge,” for many school districts because most of California’s 10,000 K-12 public schools were in remote learning well into spring of 2020.
“Many students lacked computers with secure browsers that would allow remote administration of the test, and many more experienced problems with bandwidth that made testing remotely infeasible,” the department of education said.
As a result, the state allowed school districts that could not administer the state assessment tests to give local assessment tests that met specific criteria that was approved by the State Board of Education.