UC Berkeley News


Public schools in California are performing better, says PACE policy brief, though 'rough edges' persist
Despite insufficient resources and increasing diversity, schools are 'generally moving in the right direction'

| 05 March 2008

A new report from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) says California's public-school students lag behind much of the nation in most areas, but have managed to hold steady or improve across subjects and grade levels, with graduation rates also edging upward in an era of lagging resources, a growing population, and increasing diversity.

"Although California's performance relative to the rest of the nation is a disturbing reminder of how far we have to go, we should not lose sight of how far we have come," says Jennifer Imazeki, an associate professor at San Diego State University who specializes in the economics of K-12 education, in the PACE report, "Meeting the Challenge: Performance Trends in California Schools."

PACE is a nonpartisan policy-research institute jointly based at Berkeley, Stanford, and USC, and affiliated with research centers at UC Davis, UCLA, and UC Santa Barbara. The institute contracted with Imazeki to look at California schools' performance trends.

"Californians have high expectations for their schools," David Plank, executive director of PACE and an education researcher with Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, said in response to the report. "We have a long way to go to achieve those expectations, but it's important to recognize that our schools are generally moving in the right direction, in spite of huge obstacles to their success."

Imazeki cites data from various sources in writing that "the trend across multiple measures of performance is fairly consistent: All students are doing better, or at least holding steady, during a time when the system is serving a larger and more diverse population of children."

That's impressive, according to the economist, in light of a population of more than 6.2 million students enrolled in California's public schools in 2006-07, 1 million more than in 1993-94. Imazeki also emphasizes the state's diversity: More than 70 percent of California's K-12 students are non-white, and just under half come from families who qualify for government-sponsored lunch programs.

"[It] is a testament to the dedication of our public-school teachers, principals, and staff," she says, that schools are functioning so well, even though California's per-pupil spending is below the national average and the ratio of adults to students is dramatically smaller than in most of the country's large states. Imazeki says school performance also is impressive because nearly a fourth of all of California's public-school students are new to learning English, and the state's system of finance and governance appears in need of an overhaul.

In her progress report, Imazeki notes:

. All fourth graders performed steadily better between 1992 and 2005 in reading and math proficiency on National Assessment of Education Progress tests, as did eighth-graders across all racial sub-groups.

. Based on California's own standardized exams (administered since 2003), the state's third-graders have been doing increasingly well in math and reading, echoing results in other grades and all racial subgroups.

. California is one of the few states that recorded improvement in its high-school graduation rate between 1992 and 2002, with a slight increase in the late '90s followed by fairly flat or declining rates in recent years, possibly due to the 2006 institution of the California High School Exit Exam.

. The number and percentage of high-school students enrolled in chemistry classes from 1998 to 2006 increased, as did the percentage of students signed up for advanced math and physics.

. The number of high-school students completing coursework required for admission to the UC or California State University systems is on the rise.

At the same time, Imazeki warns, there are some distinctly rough edges around California's public-school performance, such as persistent and fairly wide achievement gaps across grade levels and subjects between white and Asian students and their African American and Latino peers.

She also notes that state-level statistics can mask gigantic disparities, as reflected by some schools in which almost all eighth-graders study algebra and by other schools where no one does.

"How much better might our schools have done, and how much more might they do in the future, if California's school-finance and -governance systems actually supported student performance and accountability?" Imazeki asks. "If we are going to ask our schools for continued improvements, we must also ensure that they have the strong support that they need to do this vital work."

Such reform will no doubt be a challenge, Plank said, noting that while 2008 has been declared the Year of Education Reform in California, the state now faces a $16 billion budget shortfall.

The PACE brief may be read online at pace.berkeley.edu/pace_publications.html.

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