West Contra Costa district schools failed to improve in California’s annual test, with half of the students failing math and more than 40 percent in English language arts, according to new results.
First implemented in 2015, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, or SBAC, is a computerized test measuring student performance in English and math, using standards set by the California Board of Education.
Less than 35 percent of students in West Contra Costa district schools managed to meet that standard for English, roughly one percentage point lower than the 2016 counterpart, according to results released last month. The percentage of students failing math also increased from 49 percent to about 52 percent.
Now, some parents are concerned about instruction offered by district schools.
Lucero Garcia, a social worker at El Cerrito High School, graduated from Kennedy High School in Richmond in 2003 and has worked as a pre-school teacher’s assistant for the district for about seven years. Her child studies at Caliber: Beta Academy, a charter school in Richmond.
Garcia has been vocal about the lack of progress toward improving students’ academic performance and keeping parents informed about future plans to address the crisis.
“I just really feel upset that they’re bringing new topics in, and this is just going to get glossed over. Nothing is going to happen, and next year we will just be disappointed again,” Garcia said. “I really feel it’s important to step up and say “what are we going to do.”
Garcia pointed out that the results are worse if you break them down into subcategories, a claim supported by the newly released data.
Approximately 56 percent of African-American students failed English in 2017, followed by Hispanic students, with a failure rate of almost 50 percent. Results in math are worse, with about 68 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Hispanic students not meeting the standard.
Failure rates in English and math among non-native English learners both almost reached 80 percent for 2017.
Source: California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress
Garcia became more involved with the school system after participating in the Family Leaders Program offered by Go Public Schools West Contra Costa, an education advocacy nonprofit based in Richmond. It is a 14-week development program that helps parents become decision-makers for their students through training on advocacy skills and how to read and understand data.
According to Maribel Lopez, director of community leadership at Go Public Schools West Contra Costa, Garcia’s frustration is shared by other parents in the program.
“A lot of the families whom we work with from the family leaders program have said that they want their children to get to college and through college,” Lopez said. “We know that right now we’re just not preparing our students for that opportunity.”
Apart from providing the program, Lopez said the nonprofit keeps parents updated by releasing an annual data report. It explains a variety of indicators for students’ performance, from Smarter Balanced Assessment results to college eligibility data. The report for 2017 was released on Thursday, November 9, and contains data on student achievements and policy recommendations for the district.
The district itself is also taking deeper data dive. Alicia Bowman, executive director of research, accountability and data at the district, said very little analysis has been put into the Smarter Balanced Assessment results, because it’s a summative assessment reflecting performance from only the last school year.
“[The Smarter Balanced Assessment] is like a flashlight. It shines a light on the areas that we need to focus on, but in terms of our work that we’re measuring our progress through the year, we’re using our local assessments,” she said.
According to Bowman, the district uses selections from the Smarter Balanced Assessment and other tests to monitor student performance in areas including reading, literacy development and mathematics.
Associate Superintendent Nia Rashidchi has been working for the district for 17 years. She said that it uses a variety of assessments to identify areas of need for students to make sure they are ready for college or career.
“We’re looking at our local assessment because that’s going to give us a better insight into what’s happening on a daily basis so that we can pinpoint those needs,” Rashidchi said.
She also said that the district is taking new measures by collaborating with third-party organizations, such as Partners in School Innovation and the National Equity Project, to make sure the district has an equity lens to address achievement gap. According to Rashidchi, parents can get access to data from different schools at monthly meetings.
Despite concerns raised among parents and board members, the Smarter Balanced Assessment is not the only way to look at student achievement.
David Pearson, an education researcher at UC Berkeley, was an early advisor to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium before the test was implemented in 2013. He said that people should never “put all their eggs in one basket” when it comes to indicators of progress made by students.
“You want to look at different indices of progress. You want to look at things like graduation rates, what percentage of kids are leaving high school, ready to enter UC or ready to enter the CSU system,” Pearson said. “I would never make any judgment based upon a single piece of evidence.”
The local stagnation of test results actually mirrors the state of California overall, as very little change is seen in the percentage of students meeting standards compared to last year’s results.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment uses multiple types of questions such as matching items and short answers to test students, whereas its predecessor, California’s STAR assessment system, is a multiple-choice, paper-based test.
Pearson said it usually takes a test several years to iron out the kinks. “I think that we need at least one, maybe two more years before we can determine whether kids are really not able to do these new and different and more challenging tasks very well,” Pearson said.