Why test scores are plummeting at San Jose schools
Alum Rock Union School District, which serves East San Jose families disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, is seeing test scores drop. Photo courtesy of Alum Rock Union School District.

Santa Clara County test scores are plummeting, especially for low-income students, and the drop goes beyond the classroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the disparities across low-income households with the digital divide, disproportionate loss of loved ones and housing insecurity, all factors in the state’s drop in standardized test scores. Recovering from this learning loss means tackling the problem through academics and socioeconomics, advocates said.

Local school districts including Alum Rock Union School District and Franklin-McKinley Elementary School District saw test scores drop, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Alum Rock Union School District, which serves more than 8,500 students across more than 20 elementary and middle schools, saw a 9.9% decrease in reading and writing scores, along with a 10.3% dip in math scores. Franklin-McKinley Elementary School District saw 7.3% drops in its reading, writing and math scores across its 16 elementary and middle schools. The district enrolls more than 6,800 students.

San Jose Unified School District, for comparison, had a 3.6% decline in reading and writing scores, as well as a 5% decline in math scores. The district represents more than 30,000 students across 41 campuses.

A child’s academic performance is informed by their environment and circumstances, said Hilaria Bauer, Alum Rock Union School District superintendent. Students who are experiencing housing insecurity and displacement, or grieving the loss of a loved one, have more on their minds than taking tests.

“When we go into the testing conversation, we try to be as neutral as possible. In reality, that is just not the case,” Bauer told San José Spotlight. “These were the families that were the most affected in our county.”

Testing during the 2021-22 school year was different from other years—while students were back in person, testing environments included COVID-19 precautions like masks and social distancing, Bauer said. Addressing pandemic learning loss will require time, as school districts enter uncharted territory.

Wealth disparity among communities is a crucial factor in test performance, and a nationwide dip in scores isn’t surprising, said Pedro Nava, director of educational leadership at the Santa Clara University School of Education and Counseling Psychology. While some families adapted quickly to virtual learning during the pandemic, he said, other families with essential workers dealt with health concerns, food insecurity and job instability—making online learning another challenge. The entire landscape changed, with school districts functioning as community hubs to provide basic necessities like food.

“We can see across San Jose, in Silicon Valley, as well as the larger Bay Area that we have some really broad wealth inequities across districts,” Nava told San José Spotlight. “Some schools have much greater capacity to generate resources outside of what the state and localities provide.”

Funding disparities across school districts are longstanding. Districts were able to face the pandemic with millions in federal funding, but those funds will run out by 2024. Meanwhile, families struggle to make a living in a city that’s the most expensive in the nation for monthly bills, compounded by costly child care estimated at $21,900 per year.

Impacts of learning loss

Even in Santa Clara County school districts that saw test scores rise, learning loss crept into particular disciplines like math.

Evergreen School District saw a 0.7% increase in reading and writing scores and a less than 1% decrease in math scores across its 16 elementary and middle schools that serve more than 9,900 students. Campbell Union High School District had a 2.8% increase in reading and writing scores and a less than 1% decrease in math scores. The district enrolls more than 8,900 across eight high schools and community education programs.

While Campbell Union High School District distributed devices to tackle the digital divide and jumped straight into teaching new curriculum at the start of the pandemic, the achievement gap is still widening, especially for students of color, said Superintendent Robert Bravo.

“While the test scores look relatively strong, we know there were effects,” Bravo told San José Spotlight.

Hikes in scores could also be connected to the district’s gradual phasing of in-person learning through on-campus study hubs during the 2020-21 school year as opposed to last school year, said Jennifer Orlick, the district’s director of strategy, accountability and innovation.

But this has not helped low-income students gain ground yet. Low-income students are still performing at lower rates, with 53% meeting or exceeding reading and writing standards compared to 70% of students overall. In terms of math, 21% of the district’s low-income students met or exceeded standards as opposed to 47% of students overall.

Addressing learning loss means acknowledging the ramifications of Silicon Valley’s high cost of living on families, Nava said. Evaluating education should also go beyond test scores and factor in the student’s emotional and social development.

“The inequities that were exposed during COVID have always been there,” Nava told San José Spotlight. “What it really just shows us is that some communities have additional resources to be able to… weather the storm.”

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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