California Released New Common Core–Aligned Test Results. Less Than Half of Students Made the Grade.

Los Angeles, home of the second-largest school district in the U.S., had scores lower than the California average.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Somewhat surprisingly to this observer, California parents don’t seem to revile the Common Core educational standards like they revile vaccinations; less than 1 percent of students in the nation’s most populous state opted out of the associated assessments this year, far below the national average. (In New York, by contrast, approximately 20 percent of students refused to take the test.) So the results of this year’s Smarter Balanced tests in California, released Wednesday, offer an accurate or at least comprehensive view of where California’s 2.3 million third- through eighth-graders stand academically. The numbers are either discouraging or as-yet meaningless.

Statewide, 44 percent of California students tested at grade level in English; in math, the figure was 33 percent. (In Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the country, the numbers were even worse, with 33 percent of students meeting targets in English and just 25 percent in math.) The achievement gap remains depressingly enormous, with 72 percent of Asian and 51 percent of white students versus only 32 percent of Hispanic and 28 percent of black students hitting grade-level targets.

Across the board, these numbers represent an appreciable drop from previous years—but of course, this was also the first time California kids have taken this particular Common Core–aligned test, which was revamped to address kids’ college- and career-readiness rather than mere proficiency. And instead of filling in those familiar bubbles, students took the tests on computers, which permitted the questions to become progressively harder, or easier, depending on previous answers.

With the implementation of Common Core, teaching methods have changed dramatically, with a new emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving. And the associated tests, most agree, are harder. “By raising the bar, we’ve gone to higher, tougher standards,” California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a phone press conference on Wednesday. “So it’s natural, in that case, that the vast majority of students will be in a different place than they were.”

And, because California’s version of the Smarter Balanced assessment—along with PARCC, another of the most commonly used tests in the U.S.—debuted this year, the scores released Wednesday will serve as the baseline for future comparisons.

A total of 12 million students in 29 states took some version of these new Common Core–based assessments developed by Smarter Balanced and PARCC this year. Test scores usually come out before the start of school, but with so many students moving to these new exams, the scoring has taken longer, and many states’ test results have been delayed through the fall. Only a handful of states—Connecticut, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Missouri, West Virginia, Vermont, and now California—have released the Smarter Balanced test results. The PARCC test, which roughly 5 million kids took, has yet to release its scores.

So what, in the meantime, can we learn from the California scores? Is it just that the tests are getting harder, or are the youth of California getting dumber, or is it some unquantifiable combination of the two? It is probably too soon to tell—though of course no one is excited that less than half of California’s students appear to be meeting grade-level goals. 

Because if it’s easy to dismiss the value of test scores, it’s impossible not to feel punched in the gut when miserable ones are released. I know I’ll continue to watch the score rollout closely, for my own son’s newish school reached testing grades for the first time last year and—while he is still too young for the PARCC tests administered here in D.C.—I know I won’t be able to resist equating the education he’s getting with those columns of numbers on his school’s page. I’m only human, after all.