California test scores rise despite financial cutbacks

Jul 11 2011 - 11:35am

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It's a trend that would seem to defy conventional wisdom: As public school spending has declined in California in recent years, student achievement test scores have gone up.

Statewide, school districts spent 6 percent less from 2008 to 2010, but the percentage of second- to seventh-grade students scoring proficient on the state's standardized English test rose from 48 percent to 55 percent.

So, are educators finding ways to do more with less? Has student learning been largely unaffected by the spending cuts? The reviews are mixed.

Assemblyman Don Wagner, a Republican from Irving who sits on the Assembly Education Committee, said the findings underscore the tenuous connection between public education spending and student learning.

Spending on public schools has risen over the last two decades, Wagner said, but "you haven't seen a correlation to quality."

David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association, echoed that sentiment, saying many school districts have operated inefficiently, particularly when it comes to spending on administration.

"This is a win-win for the state," Kline said. "The test score improvement would indicate that students are doing better, which is the most important thing for all of us. If, at the same time, taxpayers have to take less money out of their family budgets, this is good for the taxpayers and the economy."

David Gordon, Sacramento County Schools superintendent, offers a sharply different perspective. State achievement tests, he said, measure only selected skills, and the scores don't necessarily reflect the toll spending cuts have taken on the classroom.

He noted that while state test scores are rising, California students do relatively poorly on national standardized tests. In recent years, California has consistently scored below the U.S. average on major categories of the national exams.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, "we're second to last in science, just behind Mississippi," Gordon said. "We're not teaching writing much anymore, or history, social science and physics."

Instead, he said, teachers increasingly have focused their lessons on the "relatively narrow measures" they are held accountable for on state achievement tests.

Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who is president of the state Board of Education, agreed that state test scores don't tell the whole story.

"We're seeing these huge class-size increases in a short period of time," Kirst said. "This has been entirely unanalyzed. ... We're plunging into the unknown."

Kirst said schools haven't yet experienced the full brunt of state spending cuts. California cut funding to K-12 schools by 14 percent between 2008 and 2010, according to data from EdSource, a nonprofit research group. School districts were able to soften the impact by spending down reserves and taking advantage of one-time federal stimulus money.

"This is the first year -- 2011-12 -- where most of the federal money is out of the system and most have drained their reserves," Kirst said.

Students only recently took their 2011 state achievement tests, so scores from this year are not yet available.

(Contact Diana Lambert at


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