Entrance to the California Department of Education in Sacramento
Entrance to the California Department of Education in Sacramento. State photo

Imagine a headline that read, “Not Everyone Died in Massive Train Wreck, Say Railroad Officials.”  If that spin sounds ridiculous, take a look at the California Department of Education’s recent press release on state test scores.

The department’s headline reads: “2022-23 Statewide Assessment Results and Chronic Absenteeism Rates Show Student Progress.”

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The reality is that huge proportions of California students fail to perform at grade level in the basic subjects.  Yet, the California Department of Education would have the public believe that the scores are something to celebrate.

The department press release states that “promising gains in student mathematics” and “consistent scores” in English language arts “show hopeful signs of continued recovery.”

The department’s spin puts lipstick on a pig.

The proportion of students who met or exceeded grade-level standards on the state math test rose slightly from 33.4%in 2021-22 to 34.6% in 2022-23 — a marginal increase.

The real story is that two-thirds of California students taking the test failed to achieve at grade level.

Instead, the Department focused on the tiny 1.2-percent increase in students scoring at grade level, which the press release characterized as “particularly promising.”

To see just how misplaced this optimistic emphasis is, consider that at this minute rate of annual increase it would take more than half a century for 100% of California students to achieve at grade level in math.

The results are not much better in reading, and the department’s spin is just as bad.

The department claimed that English language arts test scores stayed “consistent” and “did not change significantly.” 

In actuality, the proportion of students achieving at grade level in English language arts fell from 47.1% in 2021-22 to 46.7% in 2022-23. 

And again, regardless of the semantics of describing this decrease, the bigger point is that more than half of California students fail to perform at grade level in English.

So what is California doing about this low level of student achievement?

The answer from Sacramento and Washington has been to throw more tax dollars at the problem.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has bragged, “we’ve made record investments in education.”

Proposition 98 funding for K-12 education in California shot up from $79 billion in the pre-pandemic 2019-20 budget to $108 billion in 2023-24.

In a 2023 report, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office pointed out that in order to address “the learning loss and higher costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” California schools received $18 billion in one-time state funding.

In addition, California received $23 billion in one-time federal funding to address COVID-19 education effects, such as student learning loss.

Yet, as the low levels of student achievement indicate, all this funding has done little to move the learning needle.

Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times notes, “School districts across California have received billions of dollars to address pandemic learning setbacks—with uncertain results.”

And when it comes to actual classroom practice, state policymakers have saddled schools with a new woke math curriculum framework, which former U.S. assistant secretary of education Bill Evers says will make “math class more frivolous and less demanding.”

In reading, a recent study found that California continues to push failed reading strategies in most of its teacher training programs, causing the state to rank “among the worst in the nation” when it comes to instructing prospective teachers on effective reading methods.

Instead of spending more tax dollars on ineffective programs, California policymakers should focus on school models and learning strategies that work.

For example, a major Harvard study found that charter schools, which often use innovative learning models, significantly improve the achievement of African-American students compared to similar students in regular public schools.

Yet, Newsom has signed legislation that has made it harder to establish charter schools in California.

If California leaders are serious about improving education for all students, they need to stop spinning bad news, acknowledge the current grim reality, and be willing to go beyond the status quo and adopt strategies that work.

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.  He is the author of Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.