San Diego Unified Office SDUSD
The San Diego Unified School District headquarters / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Prior to the pandemic, San Diego Unified had seen five years of largely uninterrupted increases in state standardized test scores. The pandemic has erased almost all of those gains. 

District scores from the 2021-2022 Smarter Balanced assessment state standardized tests show notable declines since the last reliable testing period. The results released Monday show a 7 percent drop in students meeting math standards and a nearly 4 percent drop in students meeting English standards. The test is meant to show students’ progress toward learning state curriculum, and represent one of the first data points with which to compare student achievement before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These are the first reliable results released since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tests were not given during the 2019-2020 school year, and only around 100 students were tested during the 2020-2021 school year. The drops seen at SDUSD are larger than those seen at Los Angeles Unified, which released its scores about a month ago. California’s department of Education has not yet released scores, but districts received them in early August and were given discretion on when they wanted to release them. 

In 2018-2019 testing, around 57 percent of students met English standards and 48 percent met math standards, but the latest test results show around 53 percent met English standards and 41 percent met math standards. All racial demographics saw declines, but the wide inequities that existed prior to the pandemic remained. The sharpest decline from the 2018-2019 numbers was among math scores for Black students.  

Over 81 percent of Black students did not meet math standards this year, a nearly 9.5 percent  jump from 2019, when nearly 72 percent of Black students did not meet state standards. Over 56 percent of Black students scored in the lowest category, a more than 10 percent jump from before the pandemic. The around 19 percent of black students who meet state standards in math in the latest results is far lower than the 24 percent of Hispanic students, 62 percent of White students and 65 percent of Asian students. In English, nearly 34 percent of Black students and nearly 38 percent of Hispanic students meet standards, compared to around 72 percent of White and Asian students. 

Hispanic students saw a nearly 5 percentage point drop in the number of students meeting English and language arts standards, and a nearly 8 percentage point drop in those meeting math standards. White students saw four a nearly four and a half percentage point drop in those meeting English and language arts standards and a nearly seven and a half percentage point drop in those meeting math standards. Asian students saw a two and a half percentage point drop in those meeting English standards and an over 7 percent drop in those meeting math standards. 

English learners saw a two percent larger drop in scores, but  economically disadvantaged students actually dropped 1.7 percent less than  non-economically disadvantaged students.  

Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research said he was surprised to see a larger drop in results for non-economically disadvantaged students.  

“I think that it goes against what even in the absence of the larger trends might expect,” Goldhaber said. “Economically advantaged families could have supplemented education during the pandemic when they felt like Zoom school wasn’t working all that well, and there’s some evidence that that did in fact happen.” 

In a press release, Deputy Superintendent Fabiola Bagula wrote “as a school community, we need to adopt a new mindset when we review the assessment results, which are a snapshot during unprecedented times,” she wrote. “What is important is how we respond when we begin to discuss the results. This means not blaming our students, not blaming our teachers, not blaming ourselves.” 

Before the pandemic, the district had seen five years of gradual increases in math and language arts scores. The only year a score had dropped was the 2016-2017 schools year, which saw a sharp, nearly nine-point drop in language arts scores. That drop was reversed the next year. Overall, english scores had increased by six points and math scores had increased by nearly seven and a half points since 2014-2015. The latest results reversed nearly all of that progress, which mimics some national trends

“The long-term trend results show that a long upward trajectory (of tests scores) has been largely wiped out,” Goldhaber said. Given that these results are based on thresholds, however, he said it can be hard to tell just how far some kids have dropped. 

“These results allow us to further understand the strengths and needs of our students,” SDUSD Superintendent Dr. Lamont Jackson wrote in the press release.“We need to ask questions to better understand how we can support our students, and create learning conditions that are grounded in equity so all students can succeed.” The district listed strategies it said it will employ to help students recover from COVID-19 learning loss, like prioritizing standards-based learning, subject-area supports in math, science and literacy, expanded early education programs and extended learning opportunities. Goldhaber said those extended learning opportunities may be particularly important. Whether through longer school days, Saturday school or summer school, Goldhaber said extending academic instruction time is vital. 

“I’m a little bit skeptical that given the magnitude of the academic hole lots of students are in that doing interventions that are solely within the existing school day and year is going to suffice,” Goldhaber said.  

“I think that we need to have more extensions of learning time, whether that comes in the form of longer school days, Saturday school, longer school years or summer school, any of those ways of extending the amount of time that students can get academic instruction,” he said. 

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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5 Comments

  1. “The school district’s policy response to the pandemic resulted in….” would be a more accurate headline.

    1. This article is misleading. The pandemic did not cause severe learning loss everywhere…. The way San Diego handled the pandemic caused learning loss here with our children. Stop electing these people.

  2. This is a great article examining the issue in real depth. Thank you Jakob and VOSD!

    When the scores come out is Will going to update his excellent work last year on weighting the rankings according to the socio-economics of the area? Hope he keeps that updated and it comes out again soon!

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