Few goals in education have been as frustrating and urgent as the deep, generational disparity in achievement between the haves and the have-nots in California schools.
It is an article of faith in the K-12 school system that every student — regardless of race, creed, wealth or color — can and should be academically successful. But in measures from standardized tests to dropout rates to college completion, the achievement gap has persisted in cities, rural communities and suburbs, a sign that opportunity is not yet equal for many children in California classrooms.
Over the last decade, prompted in part by budget constraints in the aftermath of the recession, California has initiated sweeping reforms in an attempt to channel more resources to high-needs students and to better level the educational playing field. These and other efforts have, to some extent, improved academic outcomes — but black, Latino and poor students still lag dramatically behind Asian American, white and wealthier students.
That challenge remains, not only a source of political tension, but also a looming economic problem for California.
What’s the National Picture?
Disparities associated with race and class have long vexed this country. But as the civil rights laws and school desegregation mandates took hold in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the academic performance of poor, black and Latino students improved significantly.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a longstanding standardized test measuring student achievement, showed, for example, that gaps in reading and math scores between black and white high school students nationally was roughly halved between 1971 and 1996, Harvard social policy professor Christopher Jencks and UCLA public policy professor Meredith Phillips noted in their 1998 book, “The Black-White Test Score Gap.”
But by the late 1990s, as court orders to desegregate were lifted, schools quietly re-segregated, and test scores and metrics began showing diminishing progress. As the 21st century began, education researchers were baffled. When the “No Child Left Behind Act” was signed in 2001 by President George W. Bush, closing the achievement gap was its explicit aim — it was even in the title of the law.
The act focused states on the gap, but neither it nor subsequent bipartisan reform attempts have done much to move the needle. President Barack Obama in 2010 tried “Race to the Top” financial incentives, states including California have initiated more rigorous Common Core standards, and Congress combined a number of approaches in 2015 with the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” but progress has been slow.
What’s the California Picture?
Massive and diverse, California struggles with formidable income disparities and complex demographics that don’t stop at its public school system. When former Gov. Jerry Brown took office after the last recession, he overhauled school finance policy to make decisions more local, and to steer more state resources to disadvantaged kids.
The state also adopted Common Core learning standards; a tougher standardized exam to measure growth in achievement; and an accountability system that gives schools not a one-dimensional grade, but a color-coded, report card-style dashboard that judges them based on multiple data points.
Since California students began taking the new standardized exam — known as “Smarter Balanced” — statewide reading and math scores have inched up an average of about 1 percentage point each year for the past five years.
In 2019, about 51% of students who took the exam — administered to high-school juniors and students in grades 3-8 — had mastered the state’s reading standards. In math, about 40% of students who took the exam earned a passing score.
California’s gap demographicsUCLA researchers recently found that California was the most segregated state for Latinos, “where 58% attend intensely segregated schools,” exacerbating inequities in educational opportunities. More than half of the state’s black students are concentrated in just 25 of the state’s 1,000 school districts. Of the students enrolled in K-12 public schools in California, less than 30% are white, the researchers found.
Black and Latino students significantly trail white and Asian American students in meeting the state’s reading and math standards. In some instances — say, performance in reading and math between white and black students — the difference in achievement is more than two-fold.