Students enter Hoover High School in City Heights on Nov. 29, 2022.
Students enter Hoover High School in City Heights on Nov. 29, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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That the COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic effect on schools wouldn’t be a revelation to even casual observers. The nation watched for nearly two years as districts across the country struggled to navigate virtual learning, masking and vaccination requirements and the thorny political fights it all provoked. 

Though test scores often measure a school’s poverty level better than actual learning, recently released scores offer one of the first comprehensive glimpses into how student achievement fared during the pandemic, and the results are stark. Both statewide standardized test scores, and national tests administered show a sharp drop in student achievement in math, with smaller drops in English scores.  

Here are three takeaways from San Diego Unified’s scores and what they mean for the district. 

The Drops Are … Not Good

Overall, the number of students meeting state standards in math decreased by 7 percentage points and the number meeting English standards decreased by 4 percentage points. Those are the largest drops in the district since the test was implemented, and they erased five years of growth in math scores and nearly all growth in English scores. Countywide, San Diego Unified was near the middle of the pack when it came to drops from pre-pandemic scores. 

But state standardized scores aren’t the only grim portend. In late October, the first National Assessment of Educational Progress scores were released, which showed the most significant drops in math scores since testing began in 1990, and large drops in reading levels as well.  

“We’ve never seen anything like it is sort of the bottom line,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. “The word unprecedented gets thrown around a lot and here it’s really appropriate. They are unprecedented losses.” 

And San Diego Unified, despite remaining near the top of the nation’s large districts, wasn’t spared. The district saw significant drops in math scores, with the district’s fourth graders dropping even further than the nation’s average drop, while reading scores held relatively steady.  

San Diego Unified school board member Richard Barrera said the scores largely told us what we already knew – students struggled during the pandemic. He said the really important data is the ongoing assessments the district is doing with kids throughout the year and he’s confident we’ll see improvements in standardized scores in the coming years.  

“I believe that when we see the results of testing in 2023, we are going to see a bounce back,” Barrera said. But regardless of Barrera’s confidence, the district has a deep, five-year hole to pull itself out of and only time will tell how successful they are in doing that. 

The Pandemic Exacerbated Existing Achievement Gaps

Despite Horace Mann opining that education was the great equalizer, 150 years later, the state of education is still not equal. And neither were drops in test scores. Students of color saw larger drops in the percentage meeting state standards, particularly the number of Black students meeting state math standards.  

Those drops compounded one of the district’s most pressing, and lingering problems: the achievement gap. Currently, only around 19 percent of Black students and 24 percent of Hispanic students meet state standards in math. That  is around 40 percentage points lower than the number of White and Asian students who meet standards. Similar gaps exist in English scores. 

Unfortunately, this was a predictable outcome, said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA whose research focuses on issues tied to race and educational opportunity.  

“We really shouldn’t be surprised because these gaps were in place before the pandemic, and sadly they’ve gotten even worse in many areas since,” he said. 

Howard said there are a variety of factors for the gaps that include generational poverty that may affect access to high-speed internet or the ability to hire tutors to create learning pods like some more affluent families did, historic underinvestment in communities of color, the still significant segregation of San Diego’s public schools and racism and discrimination. 

He’s especially worried that if students don’t gain proficiency in math they’ll be locked out of the economy of the future, which is moving in a more technical, math-reliant direction.  

“That means that they’ll ultimately be sort of segregated into low skilled professions, which typically have low wages and you’ll see the generational poverty just continue to repeat itself,” Howard said. 

Test scores sometimes aren’t the best tool to capture student learning, but they do give some indication of where students are. 

The achievement gaps between districts were also exacerbated. Less White and less affluent districts, which already had significantly lower scores than their counterparts, tended to see larger drops in student performance. For example, at majority White and Asian and comparably affluent Poway Unified, the number of students in the latest results meeting state standards in English was virtually unchanged from pre-pandemic levels, and the number meeting state math standards dropped by less than nearly any district.  

Chula Vista Elementary, which is less affluent and majority Latino, however, saw the number of students meeting state English standards drop by around 11 percentage points and those meeting state math standards drop by nearly 10 percentage points. 

What to Do

For Howard, teachers who are well trained in subject matter, instructional strategies and cultural and racial differences play a pivotal role. Another key is for educators to intervene: one-on-one and high-frequency tutoring or additional teaching time outside of regular class hours and potentially even mandatory summer school. 

“We have to use a multi-faceted approach to help close this gap, because if we think that kids just continuing to show up in schools is going to close it, I think we’re fooling ourselves,” Howard said.  

Barrera is bullish about the approaches the district has implemented, which include math and literacy support teachers in some schools, an expanded summer school which has gone from serving around 2,000 students to around 20,000 and additional mental health supports. These are solutions he said they’ve always known were effective but couldn’t support at scale prior to the pandemic. But, Barrera warned, the increased COVID funding the district received will only last for a couple of years, and if California’s economy shrinks, so will the funding the state provides for schools. 

“In the next three to five years, we know students are going to need the kind of support we’re able to provide right now.” Barrera said. 

“What’s going to happen when the economy slows down in California, what’s going to happen when the federal relief money runs out? That’s what I think policymakers really need to be asking themselves right now.” 

Bright Spot: Students with Disabilities

One surprising result was that the only demographic at San Diego Unified that did not see a decline in the number of students meeting state standards was kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities meeting state standards in English and math ticked up ever so slightly from pre-pandemic levels. 

A similar pattern played out county and statewide, where despite the achievement of students with disabilities dropping, those drops were much smaller than those in the general student population. 

Christoforos Mamas, an assistant professor of Transforming Special Education at UC San Diego’s Department of Education Studies thinks part of the reason students with disabilities performed better is they were some of the first to return to in-person learning. The district also pointed to its targeted summer program and learning plans developed to address learning loss as potential reasons for the outcome.  

Mamas said students with disabilities may be better positioned and more accustomed to learning by themselves. For that reason, he thinks more research should be done on the potential benefits of elements of virtual learning for some students.  

Additionally, the level of parental support students with disabilities may receive could have been a factor, Mamas said.  

“Many of these parents have a unique and multidimensional system of supporting their children,” Mamas said. “Due to the additional support needs students with disabilities have, in many cases they have to receive services both in school and outside of school. Parents take a lead role in that and are well prepared to support their children,” he said. Ultimately, Mamas thinks more work needs to be done to create tight knit communities in schools that foster a sense of belonging for students with disabilities, as well as investment in highly trained teachers. 

But none of this is to say the pandemic was good for students with disabilities. Despite the very slight uptick in scores, they remain much lower overall than those of the general student population. 

Scott Soady, the chair of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education has a daughter in SDUSD’s special education system who’s blind.  

“If you can imagine a blind kindergartener in zoom school, I’m not sure what circle of hell it is, but it is one,” Soady joked.  

He supports the district’s efforts to improve outcomes for students with disabilities but wants to see more action on bringing state minimum diplomas to the district, which enables students to graduate by meeting only the state’s minimum requirements rather than added district requirements. These were allowed during the pandemic via legislation that has since expired. Bringing the low graduation rate of students with disabilities up is one of the district’s primary objectives. They’ve set the goal of increasing the graduation rate, which currently stands around 69 percent to 87 percent by 2025. And though Soady applauds that goal, he thinks it’s a lofty task, considering the district has only increased the graduation rate by around 12 percent over the past three years. 

“There’s a huge gap there. So yes, it’s improving, but I just don’t see an exponential growth happening,” Soady said.

Jakob McWhinney

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

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  1. More likely that there are scores of Spanish language readers who are clamoring for articles in Spanish, or that your editor is a pandering loser who wants to put this on his resume for woke points?

  2. Barerra’s favorite plug is the “large urban district” excuse. San Diego is not Baltimore. His calculation includes schools in La Jolla where more than a handful of kids return to $3 million (or more) homes. I would like to see a calculation on performance tied to household income and per pupil spending. They have been doing less with way more in San Diego. Can we please see something other than statistics based on race? This isn’t a deep and helpful look. It’s more of the same. Yawn.

  3. Meanwhile, OK, IW and FL are going to UNIVERSAL school choice — letting parents decide what’s best for their children. Nationwide, most private schools reopened a year earlier than most public schools.

    EVEN liberal NY state is increasing school choice, as their charter schools are getting better results with less than half the cost.

    “Socialist” Sweden went to full school choice in 1994, and today almost everyone is happier with the results. Except perhaps the teacher unions.

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