Fewer San Diego students passed state exams this year than before the pandemic. Here’s how districts fared

Students head to the first day of school at the Logan Memorial Education Campus in August in San Diego.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Although the scores mirror a similar trend of declines seen in national testing data released hours earlier, state officials say they see signs of recovery: Some students show higher-than-expected gains.

Years of incremental improvements in student achievement on state exams were wiped out during the COVID-19 pandemic, with math suffering worse declines than English language arts, according to spring 2022 scores released by the state Monday hours after new national testing data revealed a similar trend.

About 47 percent of California public school students who took state tests met or exceeded standards in English language arts, down four percentage points from 2019. Meanwhile, only a third did so in math, down seven percentage points from 2019. California has not had such a low passage rate for math since 2015, the year the state debuted its current Smarter Balanced exams.

In San Diego County, which has consistently surpassed state averages, about 53 percent of public school students passed English language arts, down four percentage points from 2019. Only 39 percent of county students did so in math, down six percentage points from 2019 and the county’s lowest passage rate since the debut of the state’s current exams.

All but three of the county’s 42 school districts and the San Diego County Office of Education, whose schools serve special populations including juvenile-court students and foster students, saw a smaller share of its students pass math, and all but seven saw lower passage rates for English.

As is often the case with standardized test scores, the county’s highest-performing school districts have the most higher-income students. Family income is one of the strongest predictors of academic performance because higher-income families are more likely to have time, resources and freedom from socioeconomic hardships that help their children succeed.

In San Diego Unified, which publicized its test scores earlier this month, 53 percent of students passed English language arts and 41 percent passed math, down four and seven percentage points respectively from 2019.

The 2022 scores provide the first comprehensive picture of performance on California’s standardized tests since the pandemic began.

Students are tested annually in third through eighth grades and in 11th grade, but the state canceled testing in 2020 because of COVID-19. In 2021, it gave districts and charter schools a choice between having students use state tests or their own tests, so 2021 results contain scores for only 740,000 students, or about a quarter of California’s students eligible to take state exams.

“These test scores show the difficulties students in California and across the nation have experienced during the pandemic,” State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said in a statement. “Gaps that we were working to close before the pandemic have persisted, especially for disadvantaged students. We have a lot of work ahead of us but with resources and support, our students can overcome these challenges and can thrive.”

However, state education officials said they see a bright side: Some of the minority of students who took state tests in both 2021 and 2022 appear to have made gains more quickly than expected, which could mean that schools’ pandemic recovery efforts are working.

Of the roughly one quarter of California students who took state tests in both years, students in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grades showed gains from 2021 to 2022 that are 20 to 52 percent greater than what would have been expected for a similar population of students before the pandemic, state officials said.

But that was not the case for eighth-graders, who showed gains that were 14 and 35 percent smaller than what would have been expected in English language arts and math, respectively. And in English language arts, sixth-graders showed gains 2 percent smaller than expected.

The state released its own test scores hours after federal officials released results from nationally-administered exams, which showed that California’s average scores declined in math from 2019 to 2022 and remain below the national average. But the state’s scores in reading held steady.

State leaders credited their investment in schools of nearly $24 billion since 2020 for minimizing COVID-19 spread in schools and expanding distance learning access, learning recovery, enrichment programs and other efforts to help students during the pandemic.

“California focused on keeping kids safe during the pandemic while making record investments to mitigate learning loss and transforming our education system,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “While California’s students experienced less learning loss than those in most other states during the pandemic, these results are not a celebration but a call to action — students are struggling academically, and we need to keep getting them the resources they need to thrive.”

San Diego Unified students’ math scores on national standardized tests declined from 2019, but their reading scores held steady.

Fewer California students reached a “proficient” achievement level — which is a higher bar than California’s standards, according to federal officials — on national tests than passed state tests.

In California, 31 percent of fourth-graders and 30 percent of eighth-graders reached proficiency in reading on national tests, while 30 percent of fourth-graders and 23 percent of eighth-graders reached proficiency in math.

How San Diego County districts did

A few San Diego County districts managed to buck the trend of declines — and not all of them have large numbers of well-off students.

Fallbrook Union High School District, a smaller district with 2,100 students of whom 72 percent are low-income, saw its English passage rate rise by 12 percentage points from three years ago, to 61 percent.

Grossmont Union High, a district with 17,100 students of whom 62 percent are low-income, boosted its English passage rate by three points to 59 percent.

All other districts either had declines or little to no change in their passage rates. Eleven districts saw drops of more than 10 percentage points in their English passage rates, and eight districts saw such drops in their math passage rates. No district made significant improvements in math passage rates.

Some parents, politicians and education experts have hypothesized that states’ and schools’ decisions to keep schools closed during the 2020-2021 school year were a major contributor to students’ achievement declines.

But federal testing officials cautioned against blaming school closures alone, noting that many factors, both related and unrelated to the pandemic, are also likely reflected in students’ performance — including higher student absenteeism, quality of distance learning, quality of learning recovery efforts, staff shortages, COVID-19 illness and deaths and poorer mental health.

“There’s nothing in that data that says we can draw a straight line between the time spent in remote learning in and of itself and student achievement,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the national exams. “It’s just too complex to draw a straight line in a way that I think people kind of want to do it.”

Indeed, the state test scores for San Diego County districts don’t show a clear trend between changes in their test scores from 2019 to 2022 and the length of time the district remained in distance learning.

Most of the districts where passage rates rose or showed smaller-than-average drops were among the first districts in the county to reopen, and most of the districts that took the longest to reopen showed larger-than-average declines in passage rates.

But at the same time, some districts that were among the first to reopen had higher-than-average declines in passage rates, such as Cajon Valley, Alpine and Lakeside. And a few of the districts that took the longest to reopen schools showed either improvements or smaller-than-average declines in passage rates, including San Dieguito and Fallbrook Union High.