California Kids Who Took State Exams Drops From Typical 95 Percent to 25 Percent in 2020-21

Just 25 percent of California students took statewide assessment tests in the 2020-21 school year, a massive drop from the state's average figure of 95 percent after the pandemic forced months of remote learning, according to data released Friday by the state's education department.

Students missing the tests, most for the second year in a row, leaves a gap in data state officials usually use to track education progress and determine the effectiveness of new policies from year to year.

In an average year, 95 percent of eligible students, about 3.2 million, take the tests that help educators judge progress in areas like English, math and science.

However, because of difficulties like internet access or technological issue preventing the tests from being administered remotely, only 25 percent, about 736,000 eligible students took the tests during the last academic year, according to the state data.

Among the students who were tested, less than half "met or exceeded standards" set by the assessments in English, math and science with rates of 49 percent, 34 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

"It's clear that the learning lag most affected younger children, as we would expect. It's hard to go to school on a computer by Zoom for little kids who are just learning to be focused and work with pencils," said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, according to The Associated Press. "The other thing of course is that we really do know where the kids suffered the most."

California, Schools COVID Remote Learning
A classroom sits empty at Kent Middle School on April 1, 2020 in Kentfield, California. California's Department of Education released data from the 2020-21 school year highlighting the difficulties caused by the pandemic in education last year. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

"COVID-19 not only created challenges for teaching and learning but also for the administration of the statewide assessments," the Department of Education said in a statement as it released results of the limited proficiency tests and other data on absenteeism and graduation rates.

Educators look to the results and how they compare to previous years to make decisions about education programs and policies. But the department warned that it "is not advisable" to do that this year and analyzing the data should be done with "explicit caution."

What the data makes clear is the extent to which the pandemic and school closures exacerbated education inequalities.

Chronic absenteeism, which means a student is away for 10 percent or more of the school year, jumped dramatically among some groups, including by 8.8 percentage points among migrant students, and 6.8 percentage points for foster youth.

Absenteeism also increased for African American and Native American students.

While there was a small dip in four-year graduation rates, the biggest part of that drop was for African American students, whose graduation rates fell by 4.3 percentage points to an overall 72 percent, followed by American Indian or Alaska Native students whose rates fell nearly 3 percentage points to 73 percent.

After the pandemic caused schools in California and around the country to shut classrooms in March 2020, the U.S. Department of Education waived a federal testing requirement for 2019-20 school year. The requirement for assessment tests was reinstated for the 2020-21 school year but certain flexibilities were allowed, including shorter tests and giving tests remotely, the California Department of Education said.

Even with that flexibility, administering the tests was "an insurmountable challenge," for many school districts because most of California's 10,000 K-12 public schools were in remote learning well into spring of 2020.

"Many students lacked computers with secure browsers that would allow remote administration of the test, and many more experienced problems with bandwidth that made testing remotely infeasible," the department of education said.

As a result, the state allowed school districts that could not administer the state assessment tests to give local assessment tests that met specific criteria that was approved by the State Board of Education.

Most of California's large urban districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, remained in distance learning until late spring 2020 and did not give students the state assessment tests. Therefore the biggest school districts in California are not included in the statewide data, but the results of their locally administered tests generally show similar findings, Darling-Hammond said.

The data also shows a sharp decline in enrollment as the pandemic forced California public schoolers into online learning. The number of students at K-12 schools dropped by more than 160,000 for the 2020-21 school year to 6.1 million students.

It is by far the biggest decline in years. The exodus was led by white students, who account for just 22% of California's public school population but represent about half of the departing students for the 2020-21 school year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.