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Amid ominous signs, California releases first student test scores since the pandemic

State education officials — who initially seemed to be delaying the release of student scores until after the election — instead shared them in a way guaranteed to hinder coverage of what's expected to be a steep pandemic-driven decline.|

Today Californians get their first statewide look at test scores measuring the toll the pandemic took on students — and the way state education officials have handled the rollout provides plenty of clues that the news won’t be good.

Earlier this fall the state Education Department refused a media request to immediately release the scores, saying it would do so by the end of 2022. That fueled speculation that the agency’s head, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, was delaying the release until after his November re-election bid. Eventually the department reversed course and agreed to release the data.

But it did so in a way guaranteed to complicate coverage. Reporters received the data Sunday morning, under a news embargo until 10 a.m. today. Typically, they use that embargo time to interview district officials and education experts — so releasing test score data when those sources are unavailable hinders reporters’ ability to analyze and contextualize an important measurement of the pandemic’s impact on California’s public school students.

“I can’t read minds, but it does give the appearance of trying to conceal the data,” said David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition. “It’s not uncommon that government at all levels will release data or other news when it’s inconvenient for media.”

It’s also likely not a coincidence that the state results will be released to the public the same day scores on a different test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, were unveiled just past midnight on the East Coast. That test, taken by a much smaller sample of California students, allows comparisons between all states — and showed an achievement drop in every single one.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom immediately issued a press release highlighting the fact that California students overall didn’t fare as poorly as those in most other states. Anyone hoping to divine how divergent state pandemic policies impacted academic achievement will find these national results confounding: California fared about the same as Florida and Texas, two states that rushed to return to in-person learning.

Not so California, where state officials deferred to local control. Citing health concerns, schools here generally continued remote learning long after students in many other states had returned to their classrooms.

Unlike the national test, California’s Smarter Balanced tests are given to almost all students in grades three through eight and grade eleven every year. They measure whether students have mastered state standards for math and English language arts. The scores the state is releasing are for the 2021-22 school year, the first year that all students in the designated grades were required to take the tests since the start of the pandemic.

California’s Education Department, which supports over 1,000 school districts and charter schools, oversees the administration of standardized testing as well as the release of the Smarter Balanced scores.

“If the superintendent of public instruction is up for re-election in less than three weeks, it looks like they’re trying to bury the data.” David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition

In the past, it has given reporters a day of advance access to the test score data, usually on a weekday before  it releases it to the public. Reporters use the time to analyze the data and identify outlier districts and schools. In this case, CalMatters attempted to contact education officials but most did not return calls because the advance release occurred on a Sunday.

The Education Department hosted a half-hour-long press briefing late Friday to summarize the test score data before it was released to reporters. But the virtual briefing only consisted of Malia Vella, a deputy superintendent at the department, speaking with her camera off. There was no slide presentation during the Zoom conference, and only a brief question-and-answer session. Reporters had to submit their questions in writing in the Zoom chat. The agency provided a text file following the briefing containing summaries of the data.

Earlier this year the education news site EdSource requested the statewide data from the department through a public records request but was denied in September. In its denial, the department stated it planned to release the data by year’s end, along with other student data like absenteeism and suspension rates.

In response to the denial, EdSource’s lawyer argued that the records exist because local school districts had already received their own test score data. The lawyer also stated the department did not identify any public interest when it chose not to disclose the data.

Less than a week later, the department backtracked and agreed to release the scores by the end of October without the additional student data. Some districts, including Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, released their data to the public independently.

Thurmond, who has faced blowback for what critics described as a lack of leadership during the pandemic, did not respond to questions about the timing of the release.

But education experts who specialize in standardized testing said there’s an array of potential issues that could delay the publication of standardized test data. Li Cai, an education professor at UCLA specializing in standardized testing, said late October is still a reasonable time for the education department to release the data.

“They’re historically always pretty good, but during the pandemic there are occasionally delays and that’s understandable,” Cai said. “I don’t want to dramatize this.”

But Loy from the First Amendment Coalition said the timing is suspect: “If the superintendent of public instruction is up for re-election in less than three weeks, it looks like they’re trying to bury the data,” he said.

Thurmond’s challenger, Lance Christensen, was more explicit in his criticism.

“I’m utterly surprised the superintendent can’t own the drop in test scores and say we’ve had a problematic last few years,” Christensen said. “Hiding it and not having the data accessible to the public until right before the election, it’s really cynical and sad.”

Megan Bacigalupi, the executive director of the parent advocacy group CA Parent Power, said the test scores are just one factor that might help voters choose a school board candidate this election. Parents received their own children’s test scores months ago. But she said the complete state-level data is crucial for parents who want to compare schools.

“Parents need to know where their own child is academically, and how they’re doing,” she said. “But it’s also important to see where your school is in relation to your district. That’s information parents should have.”

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