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Stark Achievement Gaps Require Urgent Action: California to Champion Early Learning, Provide True Opportunities to Learn and Effective Support

OAKLAND—The release of today’s Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) scores shows more must be done to close the state’s persistent achievement gaps. California is one of the lowest performing states, with among the largest gaps in the United States, in a nation that is middle of the pack globally, despite the fact that California is the 5th largest economy in the world.

Approximately half (49.8%) of California students are meeting English Language Arts standards and nearly 40 percent (38.7%) are meeting Mathematics standards, with modest-to-small gains being made from one year to the next and among subgroups. In fact, achievement gaps are striking in California with only 19.7 percent of African American students meeting Mathematics standards compared to 74 percent of Asian students. Encouragingly, students in the elementary grades are showing at least 2 percent growth in math and 3 to 4 percent growth in English. These students have benefited most of their education careers for recent reforms including the Common Core, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and accompanying increases in funding. However we see flat performance in middle schools and actual declines in the high school grades, for example 11th grade English results fell 4 percent. Clearly there is more work to be done.

“California cannot fail this generation of students and risk furthering the divide between the haves, and have nots. We must close gaps between vulnerable student populations and their peers,” said Ted Lempert, President of Children Now. “Policymakers need to focus on what matters to student success, namely expanding access to high quality early learning, ensuring high need students receive additional services and providing effective support for educators no matter where they are located in the state.”

The recent release of Getting Down to Facts II, a comprehensive set of 36 studies examining California’s PreK-12 system, shows that overall there has been modest, steady progress in the last several years in improving outcomes; however, low-income students and children of color enter Kindergarten already behind and, once in school, are less likely to have essential opportunities to learn and thrive compared to their higher achieving peers.

The state still has among the largest gaps in achievement at school entry in the country; ranks at or near the bottom of all states in the ratio of students to adults, including teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses and librarians; has higher rates of turnover and substandard credentials in schools with high need populations; and has an English Learner population that is often tracked into lower-level content area classes or excluded outright from content area classes.

California’s pathway to protect the future of today’s students.

“As a state we must do better. To support the future of California’s youth, all children – especially our most vulnerable – must have equitable access to high-quality early learning programs to support early brain development and school readiness, and, ultimately, long term success. And, we can’t stop there,” added Lempert.

California leaders must also adequately invest in public education and fulfill its fundamental civil rights role by ensuring high-needs students are actually getting access to additional support and services under the LCFF. LCFF is the right approach to funding schools because it equitably distributes funding based on student need, but it is critical that those resources translate into additional opportunities to support learning for high need students.

In September, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 1840 which directs school districts to provide greater transparency on the use of LCFF dollars. It will be critical that the legislation is implemented effectively in order to shine a light on whether vulnerable students are being provided an opportunity to learn and excel.

Finally, while California has begun to create a System of Support, this system is still fledgling, and it will be critical for policymakers to ensure it will be focused on building the capacity of all districts to improve, while instituting guardrails that will address the greater challenges impeding student success in districts and schools that are struggling.

“Slow progress is being made so we are headed in the right direction,” said Samantha Tran, Senior Managing Director, Education, Children Now, “but it is not fast enough, and we cannot think that we have arrived. California’s kids deserve better than that.”

Children Now is a nonpartisan, multi-issue research, policy development and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s health and education in California. The organization also leads The Children’s Movement of California, a network of more than 2,800 direct service, parent, civil rights, faith-based and community groups dedicated to improving children’s well-being. Learn more about us at