After five years of gradual improvement, standardized test scores declined significantly last year for many California students, most of whom spent 2020-21 in distance learning, according to a report from EdSource. Gaps in achievement Gaps in achievement and their white and Asian peers, already wide before the pandemic, expanded in math and English language arts.

State education officials said that the number of students who took the tests last year was much smaller than in earlier years. Before the pandemic, districts were required to administer Smarter Balanced tests each spring. The tests were suspended in the spring of 2020, and last year the tests were optional. Only 744,000 of 3.1 million students in grades 3-8 and 11 took the Smarter Balanced tests last spring. While less than a quarter of the total, the scores are a strong indication of how much students have fallen behind in learning during the pandemic.

Also reversing a decade-long trend, four-year graduation rates fell by less than one percentage point, to 83.6%, although they fell sharply among Black students (4.3 percentage points) and Latino students (1.6 percentage points), reflecting the disruption and havoc caused by COVID‑19 in communities of color. Graduation rates increased among whites and Asians, rising to 94.1%.

Last year, districts had the option of taking Smarter Balanced tests or another local assessment aligned to the Common Core standards, and most chose the latter, including 16 of the 20 largest districts. This spring, students in all districts will resume taking Smarter Balanced tests, including a science assessment. The Smarter Balanced tests given in 2021 and the ones this spring will be shorter, cutting the assessment time by as much as half. However, a study for the California State Board of Education found that the results of the short and long versions could be reliably compared.

EdSource compared the test scores of the 3,063 district and charter schools that gave Smarter Balanced assessments last year and two years earlier, in pre-pandemic 2018-19. The state suspended testing in 2019-20 because schools closed in response to the pandemic in March 2020, when testing was scheduled to begin.

In those schools that administered the tests last year, 48.9% of students met or exceeded standards in English language arts in 2021 — the equivalent of passing the test — down from 52.2% in 2019. In math, 33.6% met or exceeded standards, down from 38.2% in 2019. The overall decline in pass rates from 2019 was 12% in math and 6% in English language arts.

But for Latino students the drop was much sharper: 22% in math and 10% in English. Black students’ scores fell 9% in math, 7% in English. White students’ scores declined 10% in math and 5% in English. Comparing scores for Asian students was not reliable because of the small numbers of test takers. Scores for low-income students fell 21% in math and 10% in English.

Reflecting difficulties in adjusting to remote learning, younger students did profoundly worse than older students. Math scores dropped 20.1% for third graders, 21.5% for fourth graders and 22.1% for fifth graders but only 10.1% for seventh graders. Scores for 11th graders, the only high school students to take the tests, actually rose: 5.3% in math and 2.5% in English. This could reflect the participation rate, however.

The pandemic and distance learning appear to have affected English learners’ progress in learning English as well. Close to one in five students in California public schools are considered English learners. Schools are required by state and federal law to test students on their level of English proficiency if they speak a language other than English at home. The test is given to English learners every year until they achieve a score that is high enough to be considered fluent in English.

More English learners scored at lower levels of English proficiency last school year than they did two years earlier, and fewer tested at the higher levels. Schools faced many difficulties in testing students for English proficiency during distance learning. In 2018-19, 96% of enrolled English learners were tested, while in 2020-21, only 89% were tested.

Smarter Balanced scores for English learners plummeted 30.3% in math, and only one in 12 English learners met or exceeded standards on the test. Only 11.3% met or exceeded standards in English language arts.

The California Department of Education cautioned against reading too much into the two-year comparison. Districts in a normal year are required to have a 95% participation rate, but that was suspended for last year’s test. Absences may have been significant in some schools, and the 24% of California students who took the test may not fully correspond to the state’s demographics.

At the same time, the data may understate the decline in scores because students who had poor internet connections and who were chronically absent last year may not have taken the test.