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Student Achievement Disparities in California

Student Achievement Disparities in California

California parents are understandably exasperated with the alarming achievement disparities among K-12 students in the state. State and national performance assessment rankings show that California’s traditional public schools are some of the worst performing in the nation. And while poor school performance affects students of all backgrounds, low-income and minority students are disproportionately impacted. The dramatic disparities in student performance reveal that California public education is tragically failing disadvantaged and minority students, despite the state’s record per pupil spending. 


California’s school closures during the pandemic take their toll

Sadly, the most recent data on student achievement shows that California’s extended school closures in 2020-2021 — insisted on by the teachers unions during the COVID-19 pandemic — only made existing school performance problems worse. Despite the pleas of parents to reopen schools, teachers unions across the nation (especially in California) weaponized school reopenings and used them as leverage to get increased pay and benefits.

On October 23, 2022, the latest data was released from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which gauges fourth and eighth grade proficiency in reading and math. The tests are administered in about 5,000 schools across the U.S. that are representative of their states’ income and ethnicities. About 4,000 California students comprise the total 110,000-student population that take the NAEP test. The same day the NAEP results were released,  California published the state’s own Smarter Balanced Assessment scores, which test virtually all California public school students in grades 3-8 and 11. (This year and last year, the Smarter Balanced tests were shorter than they’ve historically been, a change approved in 2020 by the state Board of Education.) The results from the 2022 NAEP and Smarter Balanced  assessments were catastrophic.

According to California’s Smarter Balanced data:


And the NAEP found:

  • Among California fourth graders, in 2022 “Black students had an average [reading] score that was 37 points lower than that for white students,” and “Hispanic students had an average score that was 29 points lower” than white students’ reading scores.
  • In California, only 7 percent of Black students and 11 percent of Hispanic students scored at or above NAEP’s ‘proficient’ level for eighth grade math in 2022.

A continuing trend

An examination of student progress using 2015-2019 NAEP scores shows that California public education has been failing minority students for years. 

  • A 2015 report of fourth grade reading proficiency in California showed that only 16 percent of Hispanic students and 14 percent of Black students scored “at or above proficient.” These numbers nominally increased by 2019, in which 22 percent of Hispanic students and 18 percent of Black students scored at or above the proficient level in reading during fourth grade.
  • A 2015 report of eighth grade mathematics proficiency showed that only 13 percent of Hispanic students and 14 percent of Black students scored “at or above proficient.” By 2019, proficiency rates marginally increased to only 15 percent for Hispanic students, and decreased by four percentage points (to 10 percent) for Black students. 

  • The NAEP writes in the fourth grade reading 2022 report that the performance gap between white and minority students this year “was not significantly different from that in 1998.” Translation: This is a problem California has been facing for decades, yet little to no progress has been made.


California’s student test scores over the years expose a devastating  trajectory for Black and Hispanic students. And, contrary to the claims of California’s teachers unions, plummeting student performance cannot be blamed on education funding. 


California’s generous education spending

The state’s K-12 education budget was a staggering $123.9 billion for 2021-22, amounting to $21,555 per pupil from all sources. The 2022-23 education budget for K-12 schools and community colleges is $128.6 billion, an estimated average of $22,893 per student

Federal and state programs contribute significant funding to aid disadvantaged students. Billions pour into the state through federal programs such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Head Start. In 2020, the Legislative Analyst’s Office of California (LAO) reported “$4.9 billion in ongoing federal funding for supporting disadvantaged, low-income, low-performing, and special needs students.” This is dwarfed by the amount that California spends on its own education funding programs for low-income students. In fact — despite their massive size — federal grant programs altogether “amount to only about one-third of what the state provides for disadvantaged students,” according to the LAO. According to the same report, in 2019-20 alone, California spent over $15 billion in ongoing programs for disadvantaged students, and over $2 billion on one-time initiatives from 2015 to 2020.

These generously-funded programs for disadvantaged students, paid for by taxpayers, are far from new. Yet they have not substantially improved student performance. Why does a state that invests so much in education continue to place near the bottom of national rankings? 


Teachers unions impact on California schools

To start, California’s education system is controlled by the state’s immensely powerful teachers unions that put their political agenda before the needs of students. Teacher quality is one of the most obvious examples of the unions’ misplaced priorities. Instead of paying teachers based on how well they teach their students, teachers unions  reward teachers based on the number of years they’ve been union members. 

Unions also protect poorly-performing teachers from termination and are some of the fiercest advocates for California’s teacher tenure laws. It doesn’t help that  California teachers receive tenure — and all the employment protections that it brings — after just two years of teaching. The unions’ system, based on seniority rather than teacher merit, too often discourages the best teachers and protects the worst. And unless the state reduces barriers to entry for exceptional teachers who don’t need years of pedagogical training to be in the classroom, we will continue to discourage those with real life experience in fields of study from teaching in our K-12 classrooms.


California public school enrollment drops to its lowest in decades

 Not surprisingly, California saw the number of students enrolled in public schools decline by at least 270,000 (160,000 in 2020, and another 110,000 in 2021) in the wake of the pandemic. At the behest of the state’s teachers unions, California’s traditional public schools stayed closed longer than most other states. In response, California families left their local school districts in droves, moving their children to public charter schools and private schools that operate outside of union reach and were able to reopen more quickly. Many parents chose to homeschool their children, and still others moved their family out of state. 

With the state’s public education system declining at a rapid pace, it’s no wonder that only 31 percent of California parents say they would choose public schools for their children if all other options were open to them, or that an overwhelming 77% of Black parents and 69% of Hispanic parents say that improving K-12 education is a high priority. The question is: when will California’s leaders heed the call of parents and concerned citizens calling for education reform? If teachers unions have their way, never. Today, a grassroots education reform movement is accelerating quickly across the state and the country. In the Golden State, the California Policy Center’s Parent Union is working with parent groups throughout California to fight for real change.

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