# Michael Holzman

# California's Education Disparities

Summary: NAEP Reading results for grade 8 for California show that 4% of the state’s grade 8 students had Advanced skills, 26% had Proficient skills, 37% were at the Basic level and 33% scored below Basic—not being able to read at the level expected in middle school. In 2022, 28% of Los Angeles and 35% of San Diego students in grade 8 were at the Proficient or Advanced level in Reading. 33% of Los Angeles students and 29% of San Diego students in grade 8 were at the below Basic level. NAEP Mathematics results for grade 8 for California showed that 8% of the state’s grade 8 students had Advanced skills, 15% had Proficient skills, 33% were at the Basic level and close to half, 44%, scored below Basic. 17% of Los Angeles students and 29% of San Diego’s students were at the Proficient or Advanced level in mathematics. 51% of Los Angeles students and 40% of San Diego’s students in grade 8 were at the below Basic level in mathematics.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a federal program that measures student achievement at three grades (4, 8, 12) across a range of skills, subjects and variables. In addition to the national assessment, results are provided for states, regions and a selection of school districts. These are reported using various statistics, including discrete achievement levels: Advanced, Proficient, Basic and below Basic—let us say “A”, “B”, “C”/”D”, and “D/F.” Student achievement at grade 8 is a particularly important educational indicator. Eighth grade is in many ways a “gateway” to further education. And students who have not been taught basic skills in grade 8 may have difficulty acquiring them later.

Reading

NAEP defines the “Basic” level for Grade 8 Reading in this way:

When Reading informational texts such as exposition and argumentation, eighth-grade students performing at the NAEP Basic level can likely:

• determine the meaning of words using context from one section of the text

• locate and use explicit details to answer specific questions and make simple inferences about the text

• determine the main idea or purpose of the text using explicit features from the text

• demonstrate a general understanding of text features or graphics

• demonstrate a general understanding of the concepts in the text but can support their understanding using only limited information from the text

• formulate an opinion about a claim or argument and support this opinion using only limited information from the text, etc.

Middle school basic skills achievement levels have dramatic social and economic consequences. Most students scoring at the Proficient and Advanced levels can expect to graduate from high school, continue their education into college and, for those at the Advanced level, probably go on to college graduation and higher degrees. Those found to read at the Basic level may well graduate from high school and some may take college courses and may even eventually earn an Associate’s degree or beyond. Those middle schools students unable to read at the Basic level are unlikely to graduate from high school with meaningful diplomas. In other words, it is unlikely that they are able to make much use of written materials in school, or later at work, or in everyday and public life.

NAEP Reading results for grade 8 for California show that 4% of the state’s grade 8 students had Advanced skills, 26% had Proficient skills, 37% were at the Basic level and 33% scored below Basic—not being able to read at the level expected in middle school. There were approximately 468,000 eighth grade students in California in 2022. 154,400 of the state’s grade 8students scored below Basic, the schools having failed to teach them useful reading skills. The number of California students with NAEP reading results below Basic is approximately equal to the population of the city of Sunnyvale in Silicon Valley.

Although it is the goal of public education to educate all students to Proficiency in basic skills, or, at least, to a basic grasp of them, it is widely believed that family economic background may overwhelm the efforts of schools. NAEP provides a means to test this belief, dividing results by eligibility of the National School Lunch Program as a proxy for household income. (Those eligible for the Program have incomes less than $51,000 for a family of four.) In California in 2022, 45% of those students whose family income was high enough to make them ineligible for the Program reached the Proficient level in reading (including those at the Advanced level), while just 18% of that group failed to reach the Basic level. In contrast, those students from less prosperous families, those eligible for the program, reached Proficiency or above less than half as often (19%) and were left below Basic more than twice as often (43%) as their classmates from more privileged families. Economic class differences are one challenge schools must overcome in order to accomplish their mission of educating all students well.

The National Center for Education Statistics (sponsor of the NAEP) calculates that median annual earnings of full-time, year-round workers ages 25-34 by educational attainment in 2020 were: Less than high school $29,800, high school completion $36,600, some college, no degree $39,900, Associate’s degree $44,100, BA $59,600, Master’s or higher $69,700. If a typical working life may extend to 40 years, those earnings become a cumulative $1,192,000 (no diploma); $1,464,000 (high school diploma); $1,596,000 (some college); $1,764,000 (Associate’s degree); $2,384,000 (BA) and $2,788,000 (MA +). The difference in working-life-long earnings between Proficiency and below Basic skills at grade 8 can amount to more than a million dollars for each person, not to mention the loss in civic participation, the increased chances of incarceration, worse health, shorter lifespans, the decrease in possibilities for cultural enrichment, consequences which are, in many cases, associated with lower degrees of educational attainment, all of which become a negative inheritance for the next generation.

Considering student achievement by racial and ethnic categories is problematic for the country as a whole and especially so for California. Nevertheless, NAEP reports these as White, Black, Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander. Given those classifications, of the approximately 468,000 eighth grade students in California, 54,300 were Asian, 261,000 Hispanic, 25,000 Black and 102,700 were said by NAEP to be White. In 2022, according to NAEP, 41% of grade 8 Black students had not been taught to read at grade level, while 15% were at Proficient or Advanced: the difference in working-life-earnings for California’s Black community between what those students not taught to reach Basic reading skills in grade 8 and what they would have earned if they had been Proficient would be more than $10 billion. Of Hispanic students, 20%, read at Proficient or Advanced, while 41% were below Basic, a loss to the state’s Hispanic community of more than $78 billion over the span of a typical working life. Asian and Pacific Islander students at the Proficient or Advanced levels were 56% of the total of that group, while 14% were not reading at grade level, a potential loss to that community of nearly 10 billion dollars over 40 years. In California, 38% of White students reached Proficiency or above, those White students not being taught to reach the Basic level comprised 22% of the total, a loss of nearly 23 billion dollars in potential working life earnings. State-wide, the potential working-life earning loss associated with students not being taught basic reading skills is over 154 billion dollars.

Such are the consequences, by a crude economic measure, of the state of California not adequately supporting the basic reading skills education of a third of its children.

* * *

NAEP provides results for two California school districts: San Diego and Los Angeles. In 2022, 28% of Los Angeles students in grade 8 were at the Proficient or Advanced level in Reading, a smaller proportion than the state average, while 35% of San Diego students in grade 8 were at the Proficient or Advanced level, a larger proportion than the state average. In 2022, 33% of Los Angeles students in grade 8 were at the below Basic level, a similar proportion as the state average, while 29% of San Diego’s students read at the Basic level, 4 percentage points less than the state average.

In Los Angeles in 2022, 61% of those whose family income was such as to make them ineligible for the Program reached the Proficient level in reading (including those at the Advanced level), while just 10% failed to reach the Basic level. In contrast, those students from less prosperous families, eligible for the program, reached Proficiency or above close to one-third as often (23%) and were left below Basic nearly four times as often (38%) as their classmates from more privileged families. In San Diego, 51% of those whose family income was such as to make them ineligible for the Program reached the Proficient level in reading (including those at the Advanced level), while just 16% failed to reach the Basic level. In contrast, those students from less prosperous families, eligible for the program, reached Proficiency or above less than half as often (22%) and were left below Basic more than twice as often (39%) as their classmates from more privileged families. These family income associated disparities, especially those for Los Angeles, are troubling, to say the least.

We can then calculate the career earning losses from the potential that might have been realized if all the children in each of these districts who had not been brought to the Basic level in reading were taught to be Proficient in reading at grade 8.

Los Angeles left almost exactly one-third (32%) of its Black students below Basic for reading in grade 8, as well as between a third and a half (40%) of its Hispanic students, giving a projected loss of nearly $11 billion over their working-lives, to which might be added another $400 million for the 11% of its White grade 8 students left behind and $336 million for the 16% of its Asian students who were not brought to the Basic level in reading in grade 8. San Diego left 42% of its Hispanic students unable to read at the Basic level, giving a projected loss to that community of $1.3 billion over their working-lives, to which might be added another quarter billion dollars for the 15% of its White grade 8 students left behind, and $140 million for the 14% of Asian students. (NAEP found too few Black students in San Diego in eighth grade (500) to report reading assessment results.)

* * *

Mathematics

Turning then to the increasingly important subject of Mathematics, important particularly in technology-oriented California, students performing at the NAEP Mathematics Basic achievement level in grade 8 can likely

• simplify expressions involving integers

• use operations to solve real-world problems involving integers or fractions

• use proportional relationships to find equivalent ratios and create fractions and fractional relationships, with or without models

• demonstrate understanding of scientific notation, etc.

We might therefore assume that students at the NAEP “below Basic” level in Grade 8 Mathematics are not likely to be able to do these things. In other words, it is unlikely that they will be able to use mathematics beyond simple arithmetic. NAEP Mathematics results for grade 8 for California showed that 8% of the state’s grade 8 students had Advanced skills, 15% had Proficient skills, 33% were at the Basic level and close to half, 44%, scored below Basic.

In California in 2022, 40% of those whose family income was such as to make them ineligible for the Program reached the Proficient level in mathematics (including those at the Advanced level), while just 23% failed to reach the Basic level. In contrast, those students from less prosperous families, those eligible for the program, reached Proficiency or above less than half as often (11%) and were left below Basic more than twice as often (58%) as their classmates from more privileged families. That is, the schools failed to teach more than half their students whose families were eligible for the National School Lunch Program useful mathematics skills.

In 2022, according to NAEP, 62% of grade 8 Black students in California had not been taught mathematics to grade level, while 6% were at Proficient or Advanced. Of Hispanic students, 11%, had mathematics skills at Proficient or Advanced, while the mathematics skills of 56% were below Basic. 58% of Asian and Pacific Islander students were at the Proficient or Advanced levels in mathematics, while 13% were not able to perform mathematical operations at grade level. White students not being taught to reach the Basic level comprised 15% of the total, while 54% reached Proficiency or above, the Asian and White results reversing the Black and Hispanic distributions.

In 2022, 17% of Los Angeles students in grade 8 were at the Proficient or Advanced level in mathematics, a lower proportion than the state average; 29% of San Diego students in grade 8 were at the Proficient or Advanced level, a larger proportion than the state average. 51% of Los Angeles students in grade 8 were at the below Basic level, more than the state average. San Diego failed to teach 40%, of its students to read at the Basic level, 4 percentage points less than the state average.

In Los Angeles in 2022, 50% of those whose family income was such as to make them ineligible for the Program reached the Proficient level in mathematics (including those at the Advanced level), while just 17% failed to reach the Basic level. In contrast, those students from less prosperous families, eligible for the program, reversed that distribution. They reached Proficiency or above close to one-third as often (11%) and were left below Basic nearly four times as often (57%) as their classmates from more privileged families. In San Diego, 46% of those whose family income was such as to make them ineligible for the Program reached the Proficient level in reading (including those at the Advanced level), while just 21% failed to reach the Basic level. In contrast, those students from less prosperous families, eligible for the program, reached Proficiency or above less than half as often (14%) and were left below Basic more than twice as often (56%) as their classmates from more privileged families.

Los Angeles left nearly three-quarters (70%) of its Black students below Basic for mathematics in grade 8, as well as more than half (59%) of its Hispanic students. It left 27% of its White grade 8 students left behind and 16% of its Asian students were not brought to the Basic level in mathematics in grade 8. San Diego left 56% of its Hispanic students unable to perform mathematical operations at the Basic level, as well as 62% of its Black students and 19% of its White grade 8 students. A quarter of the Asian students were left unable to perform basic mathematical operations at grade level in San Diego.

Again: Los Angeles left nearly three-quarters of its Black students below Basic for mathematics in grade 8, as well as more than half of its Hispanic students. San Diego left 56% of its Hispanic students as well as 62% of its Black students unable to perform mathematical operations at the Basic level.

* * *

How much value do California’s schools add to the education of its children? Little or none for nearly half of those from less well-off families and even a fifth of those from more prosperous families who are not taught essential basic skills. The situation is worse yet for Black and Hispanic children in the state’s two largest cities. In all, over 150,000 children in the self-styled Golden State are left to make their way in the world without the basic skills necessary to do so.

Michael Holzman

December, 2022