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Below the Curve in Education

by Indy, published

California's African-American, white, Latino and low-income students all have improved significantly on national tests in fourth-grade reading and eight-grade math over the past decade, and at a slightly better pace than the nation as a whole, according to a new report.

California leads the nation in financial aid offered to low-income college students. It's in the middle of the pack - 25th - nationally when it comes to college affordability.

That's about the end of the good news for the Golden State in The Education Trust's series of annual Education Watch series released recently.

The 52 reports - each state, the District of Columbia and the nation as a whole - use data from federal and state education departments, the U.S. Census bureau and several private foundations to compare student achievement and opportunity across the nation.

California didn't fare well for the most part.

  • 34th in per-student funding, with a 7 percent gap between students in high-poverty and low-poverty districts.
  • Ahead of only Mississippi in eighth-grade science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Data were unavailable for seven states, though, so California can delude itself that it's not really that bad.
  • 47th in math scores for low-income eighth-graders. High-income students performed only slightly better, coming in at 45th
  • Low-income fourth-graders' reading scores ranking 51st.
  • California has made no statistically significant progress in narrowing the achievement gap between African-American and white students or Latino and white students in fourth-grade reading sine 1998 or eight-grade math since 2000.
  • The California Standards Test showed 51 percent of the state's fourth-graders at proficient or above in reading in 2007, but NAEP results showed only 23 percent proficient or better.

There's a valid reason for that difference, a difference that disappears by the way if you look at the 53 percent of California students who are basic or above on NAEP.

NAEP was designed to test against the ultimate education experience - everything teachers would want students to know in an ideal world. CST, and most state-level exams, is designed to measure what students need to know. Not even the highest-performing countries would have 100 percent of their students reach NAEP's "basic" level, experts say.

"Simply put, NAEP's standard for proficiency is set at a level we want every student to reach, while states set their standard for proficiency at a level we expect every student to reach," the nonprofit Center for Public Education says.

It's yet another gap that California has to be concerned about nonetheless, given that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a NAEP fan.

"We have states that tell the public that 90 percent of kids are meeting state standards, but when we look at how they're doing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it's nowhere close," Duncan told The New York Times in February. "I'm not going to reward that. I want to be transparent about the good, bad and the ugly."

The state and national results do dovetail when it comes to patterns.

When the most recent CST scores were release in August, Education Trust West also noted achievement gains across ethnic and income groups while stressing that achievement gaps persist.

Education Trust West also noted concerns about inadequate progress in helping students who score below basic and far below basic, and that's one of the great ironies of No Child Left Behind.

As educators focus on students close to proficient, more children on the very high and low extremes are being left behind. Some research shows that the problem is even more acute for high-achieving students

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