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Walters: California students among nation’s worst for math and language

Walters: California students among nation’s worst for math and language

Gov. Gavin Newsom and other political figures like to brag about California’s role as a national or even international leader in all things wonderful.

They tend, however, to gloss over or ignore indications that California is falling short in some very important indices of societal achievement, such as public education.

When measured against other states, much less other nations, California’s nearly 6 million public school students rank among the lowest in national education testing for mathematics and language skills.

The latest round of National Assessment of Educational Progress test results, released last fall, revealed that California’s fourth- and eighth-graders were once again in the bottom tier of states in reading and math.

Moreover, California’s unusually long school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic reduced achievement even more, as a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California revealed.

Before the pandemic, 51% of students met standards in English language arts, or ELA, and it had dropped to 47%. In mathematics, proficiency declined from 40% to 33%.

“Only 35% of low-income students met state standards in ELA and 21% were proficient in math,” PPIC reported, “compared to 65% of higher-income students in ELA and 51% in math.”

Furthermore, PPIC noted, the nationwide tests of reading and math proficiency “shows that California has consistently lagged behind most other states … 38th in math and 33rd in reading.”

We may not need more evidence that Californians lack competence in basic skills, but last week we got another data dose from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, a global program of testing supported by the U.S. Department of Education.

A new analysis of its data reveals that in “numeracy” — the ability of adults to use mathematics in daily livesCalifornia ranks near the bottom of states, virtually identical to Georgia and other states in the second lowest tier. Within California, just one of its 58 counties — Marin — scored in the highest tier.

By happenstance, the numeracy report was issued just a few weeks after the state Board of Education adopted a new framework for math instruction that advocates claim will increase the computational acumen of California students by making it more culturally relevant.

Board member Gabriela Orozco-Gonzalez, an elementary school teacher in Montebello, said, “The framework’s focus on fundamental concepts, open-ended tasks, justice, student inquiry, reasoning and justification aligns with effective mathematics teaching practices. I am encouraged by the incorporation of strategies to support diverse learners, such as promoting multilingualism, facilitating group work, employing visual aids, and establishing cultural connections.”

Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who wrote a book on the Common Core standards, was one of many critics during a three-hour hearing prior to adoption, saying the framework sends a “message that math facts can be treated lightly.”

The climactic board meeting reflected years of often bitter debate, dubbed the “math wars,” over how best to raise math skills, not unlike a similar conflict over language skills dubbed the “reading wars.”

Traditionalist supporters of phonics finally emerged triumphant in the battle over reading but traditionalists lost on math. Ultimately, the board made a few tweaks aimed at placating critics but left the original concept of downplaying rote skills and early introduction to algebra largely intact.

Obviously California has a math skills problem. Too many of our students and adults are “innumerate” — the mathematical equivalent of illiterate — and that has vast societal impacts, from lessening Californians’ ability to manage personal finances to depriving the economy of workers with critical skills.

We’ll see if California’s new woke math curriculum improves its standing, or drives us even lower.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

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