Long Beach Unified students saw significantly lower test scores in math and English for the 2020-21 school year, highlighting the difficulties in a year of mostly remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The California Department of Education recently released student performance data from 2020-21, giving a snapshot of how students fared in the pandemic for the first time in two years.

Overall, students statewide saw setbacks in standardized tests for math and English, while chronic absenteeism increased and four-year graduation rates decreased. The scores also show widening achievement gaps between student groups.

The California Department of Education canceled standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year due to the disruption from the pandemic. It cautioned that year-to-year comparisons are difficult because fewer students took tests and districts had more leeway to give localized exams.

Nonetheless, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond in a statement said the results reflect the pandemic’s impact.

“The statewide performance data from last year confirm what we heard from school districts and county offices throughout the year,” Thurmond said. “Namely, the challenges that students and educators faced during the pandemic were multi-dimensional and disruptive to learning and mental health. Our goal now is to move all students forward.”

In one of the larger setbacks in recent years, 66% of Long Beach Unified students failed to meet state standards for math last year, up from 54% in the 2018-19 school year.

The drop in achievement comes as the district had been showing consistent progress. In the 2017-18 school year, 57% of students failed to meet math standards, down from 61% the previous year.

Long Beach Unified English and math test results for the 2020-21 school year. Source: California Department of Education.

Scores were lower for Black, Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, with more than 80% of Black students failing to meet state math standards, up from 72% in the 2018-19 school year.

The scores reflect tests for students in grades 3-8 and high school juniors.

Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou said several factors contributed to the lower scores.

In one change, the district opted to use a localized version of an English assessment for grades 3-5, instead of using the state version of the test, which impacted results. And while the district worked to get as many students tested as possible, the overall participation rate was just over 80% last year, compared to 98% in previous years.

“These challenges are being seen statewide and nationwide, and while we cannot point to specific causes from these data alone, it’s clear that the pandemic and virtual learning negatively impacted student growth, more so in math and for students in early grades,” Eftychiou wrote in an email. 

Eftychiou said the district is intervening at all grade levels to give students extra support, including mentoring and tutoring.

“We’re also using a suite of assessments and tools to gather mid-year data on student progress to work with teachers, students and families on accelerating learning as we emerge from the pandemic years,” he said.

Statewide, more than a third of students failed to meet math standards, while nearly 69% of students in Los Angeles County didn’t meet standards, up from 61% in the 2018-19 year.

Rick Miller, chief executive officer of CORE Districts, an association representing Long Beach, Santa Ana, Sacramento, San Francisco and other large California school districts, said the pandemic exacerbated longstanding disparities in education.

“We’re seeing that the kids of color, the kids in poverty, the kids who are the furthest from success, they were the ones harmed the greatest,” he said.

Miller said the state’s plummeting math scores were alarming and reflect longtime struggles with the subject. Miller said math is particularly challenging for students in distance learning because many parents are uncomfortable with math and can’t offer much help.

“There’s just no question we’ve learned in this pandemic that in-person instruction is far superior to distance learning,” he said.

He said the state is working on a new math curriculum that involves building a stronger framework with elementary school teachers.

More students also struggled in English language arts.

In Long Beach, 49% of students failed to meet state standards for English, up from 46% in the 2018-19 year. Statewide, just over half of all students met English standards.

Long Beach also saw a slight increase in chronic absenteeism, with a rate of 15.7% last year, up from 15.1% in the 2018-19 school year. Black students saw the highest increase, with 25% chronically absent, up from 22%.

In comparison, 17.2% of Latino students were chronically absent, up from 16%, while 6.8% of white students were absent, down from 10.2%. Asian students saw an 8.9% absent rate, up from 8%.

The statewide absenteeism rate was 14.3%, up from 12%.

Eftychiou said the district is implementing an “All-In” attendance initiative that includes direct outreach to students and families to encourage their attendance and support them to overcome any barriers to school attendance.

Long Beach’s four-year graduation rate saw a slight decrease at 84.3% last year, down from 87.5%, which the district attributed to the pandemic’s overall impact on student learning and mental health.

While the pandemic has brought challenges, the state Education Department in a statement said California, with an influx of new funding, is committed to helping students.

Last year, Gov Gavin Newsom signed a $123.9 billion education package that provides the highest level of K–12 funding in state history. 

LA County reports 53 more COVID-related deaths, 43,883 new cases