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Lesson 1.1

California Context:
Are California’s Schools Really Behind?

California kids are just like other states’ kids, right?

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Updated April 21, 2017

Are California's schools behind? It's a fine question, but let's back up a little. How can we know?

Each year, a statistically rigorous sample of 4th and 8th graders takes tests for the "Nation’s Report Card." Education insiders rarely call it by that name. To insiders, these tests are known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. (It's pronounced "nape." So now you know.)

Very few children actually take the NAEP tests.

Very few children actually take the NAEP tests. These are not the tests that all students are required to take each year. The purpose of the NAEP is narrow: it is meant to serve as a statistically meaningful barometer for the system as a whole, without regard to individual schools. As a sample of all schools, it suggests how well students know the basic academic content associated with their grade level. It is designed to be consistent from place to place and from year to year. The scores, though imperfect, enable researchers and policymakers to monitor and health of the overall education system, and to compare student achievement between states, grades, subgroups and years.

NAEP scores don't tend to change quickly, though. Frankly, almost nothing in the education system changes quickly -- and this is a recurring theme of Each year, scores bump up or down a point or two, but the best predictor of next year's score tends to be last year's score. It makes sense, right? The education system is like an armada of giant ships, each rowed by thousands of little oars. Each year the people rowing have a lot in common with those who rowed the year before. The underlying currents surrounding a school community tend to change slowly, too. Books and tools might change a little. Teachers evolve their lessons, or move, or retire, or shift grades. But on the whole, change tends to happen slowly in each school system.

California's children tend to score poorly on the NAEP tests. The chart below shows the overall rate at which children in each state have scored "proficient" or better over time. (It averages fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores.)


Unfortunately for California kids, these stubborn scores appear to matter. Most education researchers reckon that a ten-point difference in NAEP scores represents about a year of difference in academic learning. If true, California's students are years behind those in top-scoring Massachusetts.

Perhaps these tests aren’t quite fair to California students. For example, in 2013 the design of the NAEP test differed quite a bit from the state test California used at the time, but the Massachusetts test design was closer. Administration of the test varies a little my state, too -- for example, some states provide extra testing time to English learners. Texas exempts students from the test if they are so new to English that they would bomb it. These small differences in administration probably matter a bit; small differences in state scores shouldn't be taken too seriously. Also, maybe the rule of thumb is wrong. Maybe ten points of difference isn't equivalent to a year, but more like nine months. Or six. Anyway, tests don’t tell the whole story, right? There are many ways to measure Success.

California’s children are not within quibbling distance of the skills of children elsewhere in the country.

These quibbles miss the point. The fourth grade reading assessment evaluates whether children can read short passages and understand them. Based on the numbers, California’s children are not within quibbling distance of the skills of children elsewhere in the country. Ask a family that has moved to California from the east coast for their perspective. They will probably tell you that California's schools feel easier, and that class sizes are a lot bigger. The differences are statistically significant, but also personally significant.

Does it matter if California children start off slowly, one might ask, so long as they catch up later? Unfortunately, they don’t. For many years, research has shown that children not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are at serious risk of never graduating from high school. California’s 8th grade NAEP reading scores remain consistently among the worst in the nation.

Are poor results somehow better for California, or for kids, if they can be “explained...?”

Could California’s awful results be explained by demographics, some ask? This question begs another in return: should it matter? Are poor results somehow better for California, or for kids, if they can be "explained" by the state’s larger numbers of non-white children and children in poverty? The children in our schools grow up to become the workers and leaders of our communities. If we want California to have a bright future, can we afford to accept demographics as an excuse for bad scores?

CA-NAEP-Rank-2015In any case, the data leave no room for denial. California’s children in poverty generally score behind those in other states, as do California's Latino students. But the rest of California's children aren't exactly leading the parade, either.

Is there someone to blame? Is there a villain in this tale? Is it the fault of the students themselves, or their parents? Or perhaps lawmakers, or unions, or voters, or teachers, or administrators, or the courts? Or perhaps teacher training systems, or textbooks, or the health system? Is it because California is too big?

Themes of Ed100

As you read Ed100, a few themes will emerge. California's education system is massive, but education is personal. Easy answers are tempting, but usually wrong. For education to work well, many things have to work well at the same time.

You are reading Ed100 because you want to do something about these facts. There are many approaches to change, and we will explore them one by one. But the purpose of chapter one is to lay the groundwork first. So let’s broaden the context a bit. The next lesson examines how California compares not just to America, but to the world.

Updated April 21, 2017 with refreshed NAEP rankings.
Also added "In This Lesson" beacon links. Hope you like them!


True or False: The "Nation's Report Card" (NAEP) test is administered to ALL students, annually.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
August 1, 2017 at 5:46 pm
In the paragraph asking if someone or something is to blame for low California NAEP scores, I get that the idea is there's no one someone or something. But missing from the list is underfunding. You get what you pay for. And while that is not the entire answer, it deserves to be part of the list, and a big part.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 1, 2017 at 5:30 pm
You can find how well students do on the California state assessments on the CAASPP website:
In 2016, more than half of the students at almost every grade tested did not meet the California standards.
user avatar
Caryn September 18, 2017 at 12:04 pm
Another aggravating reality--in 2016 more than half didn't meet the standards? And to be honest, California standards don't seem that sky high in the first place.
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Meilani Hendrawidjaja May 8, 2017 at 12:27 pm
I am really surprised to see that California's scores are that low.
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May 3, 2017 at 11:13 am
Some student does not do well on the test because they do not work well under pressure.
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Carol Kocivar December 29, 2016 at 3:39 pm
You can find a history of California's NAEP results on California Department of Education web site that includes comparisons with other states as well as results based on ethnicity and low-income.
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Karen September 29, 2016 at 1:50 pm
Thank you for the information. Its very useful and important. However I think language is important. I don't think we should ever describe an accommodation such as the one mentioned for Texan ELs as 'cheating'. We can debate whether accommodations for distinct groups are neccessary or useful but I do not think we should not use emotive language to describe it.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 15, 2016 at 11:44 am
Thanks for your close reading and suggestion.
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Carol Kocivar June 12, 2016 at 5:40 pm
The Urban Institute provides state comparisons of NAEP scores adjusted for demographics.
Take a look at where California ranks. Tip: Look towards the very bottom of the chart.
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The Village Method December 31, 2015 at 7:47 pm
In our district, it seems as though there are more stereotypes on how well students should be able to do. With the community being, largely, Asian and Filipino (50%) it's almost as though the culture and community is driven by their interests. However, Latino and Black students are continually performing at the lowest levels within a resource-rich district. Parents living in the city are not engaged in what it requires to ensure a student succeeds. Teachers cater to the "easier" students versus dealing with those that have challenges (social, emotional, academic). When our group asked parents how well they think the district performs and then the state...they were shocked to discover the demographics. What was also a shock to them was the low performance amongst all the demographics in various subjects.
Looking at our local performance levels in relation to the state-wide and national...seems to reveal more than what administrators are prepared to address.
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jmjamiealita April 27, 2016 at 8:51 pm
I don't know what you base your state on in regards to "Parents living in the city are not engaged in what it requires to ensure a student succeeds. Teachers cater to the "easier" students versus dealing with those that have challenges( social,emotional,academic)." I am a Parent Volunteer and I know for a fact that in spite of the parent's personal obstacles , for example not having a middle school or high school diploma does not keep them from being involved in school activities that enhances test taking techniques, and time management techniques for homework. Also over 40 percent of our student population are special ed. students that have social,physical, emotional, and delayed memory problems. As well as those who are in need of help academically. In spite of the fact that there are some who have "low"test scores, there are some who test "exceptionally well" when it comes to test regardless that their in special ed. or not.
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brooke.blackmore November 4, 2015 at 8:08 pm
I have seen some excellent commentary and read some great questions. As a mother of very intelligent young people and a stickler for homework, I strongly believe that there are many tangible variables that contribute to the low test scores and in my opinion, the cheif one is lack of hope. Call me crazy, many do, but if students don't have hope they are not likely to dream. No dreams, no goals. No goals, zero motivation to do much of anything worthwhile. I see it in my senior, who spent many years with a father that told him he would never need the math he was learning and still struggles with basic math concepts. Those that believe in our kids, our students, our true natural resources will continue to inspire and support to the best of our ability. Our kids need to learn how to do this for themselves and each other, to never ever give up.
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Jeff Camp - Founder November 6, 2015 at 3:28 pm
Motivation is a challenging and vital aspect of education. Have a look at Lesson 2.6 for more on the subject.
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rxc2674 September 26, 2015 at 10:14 pm
Funding cuts happen across the board and it has become difficult to provide services to students that need them most. Many school administrators and teachers have to wear many hats and this in some ways derails what teachers need to focus on and that is teaching. Lets get back the funding needed to give our students the services they deserve and need to become productive citizens of our future.
user avatar
hetds June 10, 2015 at 11:12 am
Since California's Governor Brown and the CA Legislature
have terminated ALL PARENT EDUCATION CLASSES (aka Mommy and Me), I confidently predict even worse academic results for our students.
In our El Monte-Rosemead Adult School we have provided Parent Education classes since 1936.
Now, these classes have been liquidated in Adult Schools in CA.
How does this Parent Education Program work?
For three classes per week with three hours per class,
each child is accompanied for the entire class period by a caring adult. Under the guidance of an expert, credentialed Early Childhood Educator and an experienced Teacher's Assistant, the children ages two to four prepare academically, socially, and physically for Kindergarten.
This is truly class-size reduction as it should be.
Headstart, Pre-School, and Kindergarten Readiness have only one adult teacher (and sometimes an assistant)
To "teach" up to 25 kids. Is this possible?
Graduates from Parent Education Classes (which often include grandparents, aunts, uncles, adult siblings, and even caring adult neighbors) go on to success in K to college.
Yet, our state "leaders" decided to kill off
A proven educational program, which has so successfully
educated pre-schoolers and which prepare their adult family members to support these little ones throughout their schooling.
Also, the now defunct Parent Education Programs introduced immigrants, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged to how to succeed in school.
It's now gone, without any media coverage nor public discussion whatsoever.
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bthiesen June 30, 2015 at 10:28 pm
Although there have been funding cuts, not all districts have cut these programs. Our district continues to provide a Mommy & Me program as well as a strong parent education component. These are foundational programs for all students but especially students living in poverty.
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omedina May 20, 2015 at 1:49 pm
Another factor to consider are the significant differences in the percentage of English learners (EL) enrolled in each state. There are also differences within EL populations. For example, the EL population I currently serve is much more often underschooled than EL's in other parts of California. Also, EL's are on a trajectory to acquire academic English over time; thus, the relatively high percentage of EL's in the early grades can and does impact California's average NAEP scores. Average scores in 8th grade are still affected by the fact that close to 80% of all EL's at that grade level are long-term EL's (with limited academic language mastery.)
user avatar
arienneadamcikova April 20, 2015 at 9:50 pm
There are many other studies that show that poverty is the driving factor behind the achievement gap. Who funds this site?
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Jeff Camp - Founder April 20, 2015 at 11:40 pm
Thanks, Arienne -- Yes, poverty is massively entangled with achievement gaps. Poverty is discussed alongside race in Lesson 2.2, and the topic of Achievement Gaps is further discussed in Lesson 9.6. Regarding the funding of Ed100: the content of this site has been substantially driven by volunteers (including me). Funding for technical web site development, fact-checking and translation to Spanish has been provided (as of this writing) by the Stuart Foundation, the Kabcenell Foundation and Full Circle Fund. (The Noyce Foundation also provided some help very early on, when Ed100 was a PDF and a notion that it shouldn't be so hard for people of good will to learn about education issues in a coherent way.) If we add other major supporters (which would, by the way, be lovely), we will add them with our thanks on the About page.
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omedina May 20, 2015 at 1:43 pm
There are also studies indicating that well-designed, well-implemented, research-based programs can overcome the effects of poverty (low academic language in the home, reduced access to technology, limited extra-curricular activities, preschool, etc.)
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organodeflaco April 20, 2015 at 5:03 pm
How do they determine poverty levels??? By how expensive gasoline is??? Economical factors should be inserted such as prices of commodities ... Test scores are just that... Many a fine talents have gone awry for not "passing" test... The list goes on and on...
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jbrenee9 March 15, 2015 at 10:12 am
There is a lot of factors when studying the two different states. For example, are more students in poverty level here? Is the same curriculum taught in the same amount of time? Are the same tests given? It would be interesting to see a different states classroom and if they "run" their class close to the same.
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terirafiq March 15, 2015 at 10:07 am
People in this community seldom take part in these topics. As far as parent involvement is concerned, they communicate with school staff during parent teacher conferences only.
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Jeff Camp - Founder March 15, 2015 at 11:39 am
Thanks, Terirafiq -- you raise an important point. When I'm asked to describe the core audience of Ed100 my answer is parent LEADERS. Not all parents. Most parents aren't very interested in understanding the education system, much less influencing it. But some are, and that makes all the difference. Ed100 is designed in the belief that in each school community there are a few people who are determined to get involved and make their school the best it can be. Those are our people. They need knowledge to be prepared, persuasive and effective. Education is a huge system, and you can't influence a system responsibly without understanding it. The barriers to real understanding are high. Until Ed100, there was no reasonable way to learn about the system intentionally, in a holistic way, including the interconnections between issues and variations in perspective. That's the role that Ed100 exists to serve. It's not meant to be for everybody- but it IS for anybody who might feel drawn to make a difference. An Ed100 completion certificate represents an investment of time and attention in understanding the issues of a complex system.
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gwenhourihan March 11, 2015 at 9:55 pm
Okay but this is a far bigger topic than test scores. We all know that. Are they taking the same test in California and Massachusetts, etc? Is the curriculum the same? My daughter is being taught a chapter a week in Science in 8th grade -- that's crazy -- and someone tested on parts of a chapter they haven't even discussed in class yet! To me THAT is a bigger issue. What is being taught, the curriculum, and teaching kids to love learning. That is not happening for her right now. Does she have to wait until college? That may be too late.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 12, 2015 at 10:57 am
Hi, Gwen -- The challenging topic of how to measure success (for students and for schools) is a focus of Chapter 9. In answer to your question the NAEP test is the same nationwide, but there are some state-level variations in who takes the test (involving policies for English learners and students designated special ed). The NAEP test isn't the one that your kids take - it is given only to a sample of students in order to provide a way of getting beyond the political fray and approaching an apples-to-apples metric. Love of learning is an element of student motivation, discussed in lesson 2.6. The content of learning (the standards, curriculum and materials) is the focus of Chapter 6 ("The Right Stuff"). Thanks for the comment! Keep reading, and good luck in the drawing!
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harplits March 11, 2015 at 9:00 pm
I believe I have dismissed these statistics in the past attributing them to the vibrant immigration dynamics of this state. However, when I see that New York and Florida 4th grades are scoring above in reading it raises many questions.
user avatar
ms March 3, 2015 at 4:23 pm
Very thought provoking lesson! I'd seek to understand how much California is spending per student, say compared to MA or TX.
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Jeff Camp - Founder March 3, 2015 at 5:16 pm
Thanks, MS. The ten-chapter "flow" of Ed100 is "Education is Students and Teachers spending Time in Places for Learning with the Right Stuff in a System with Resources for Success. (So Now What?). The topic of money is principally addressed in Chapter 8 (the chapter on "Resources".) Have a look at Lesson 8.1 and 8.2 for information about how California compares to other states such as MA or TX.
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jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 6:12 am
My thought is that so many kids are transient - meaning they move from school to school based on parents finances. We desperately want to move out of our neighborhood but don't have the option unless we are willing to put our kids in a bad school just to save some money on rent and utilities. It's a hard choice that we make. But we stay where we are at so our kids have consistency. School and district boundaries make it difficult to keep your kids where they have established relationships/friendships. So we have to bite the cost of staying where we are at instead of being able to buy a home. It's a lose-lose situation.
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Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 3:44 pm
Thanks, Jenzteam. You might be interested in Lesson 5.1 in the " a Place for Learning" chapter of Ed100.
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melvill97 February 6, 2015 at 9:06 pm
This talks about demographics, and "catching up", but California, in my opinion, is unique in that we have a large number immigrants moving here all the time with children of all ages. How does this affect the test results, and do we have or are we using resources to support these students effectively. Could it be the number of new English learners will continually skew these results so long as we have families immigrating at such a high rate?
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anamendozasantiago February 5, 2015 at 4:35 pm
While many students are behind...we cannot ignore California students who are above grade level. There is very little resources (if any) for these students. We have very talented and gifted students in CA but our education system expects them to sit, wait or tutor struggling students. We are holding many of our talented students back with lack of funding. We need an education system that serves all our students.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 5, 2015 at 6:29 pm
Thanks @anamendozasantiago -- yes, as you point out, the funding system does not provide differentiated funding for gifted students. The system does make some differentiations, which are explored in lesson 8.5, about the Local Control Funding Formula. Funding for special education is summarized in Lesson 2.7
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Emily RossBrown February 25, 2015 at 10:37 am
Having recently been exposed to the "GATE" (gifted and talented) program from a child participant who declared it "boring, and no different than regular school work". I wonder if instead of making children wait for others to catch up, if we could perhaps hold ALL children up to the highest academic level and if any are struggling have those that have finished the work help those who are behind? Peer to peer assistance - it can only benefit the entire class.
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Jeff Camp - Founder February 26, 2015 at 9:48 am
Emily, you might be interested in lesson 5.3, which addresses the topic of selectivity, and Lesson 2.7, which discusses the use of individual learning plans in the context of special needs. There is no state mandate or directed funding for GATE programs -- under Local Control Funding (LCFF) these are investment choices that districts and schools make.
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stacy.c.banks March 8, 2016 at 11:56 am
I agree. While there are many struggling to come close to meeting the basic standards, there is definitely a group of high achieving students that are being left out. The test scores being talked about are just for the PUBLIC schools and many parents of high achieving students who are able to are taking their students out of the public schools and turning to alternative schooling, whether homeschool, charter schools, or private schools in an effort to provide the challenge and interest that their children need.
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amosmickey January 22, 2015 at 9:42 am
I am curious how much funding, class size, infrastructure and teacher training compares between CA and the other states? We have faced cuts in our education budgets for some time now due to the budget shortfall and it is only started to creep up again. Anyone has any data points or ideas?
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Jeff Camp - Founder January 22, 2015 at 9:16 pm
@AmosMickey: Regarding funding, have a look at ed100 chapter 8, which focuses on resources. California's large class sizes are discussed in lesson 4.2. For teacher training try using Ed100's search function to look for "professional development." For comparisons of California and other states on a variety of dimensions related to education, click over to and look for the "States in Motion" charts.
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Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 9:08 am
California is also well behind other states in funding education. While correlation does not prove causation, I think we need to look at the funding to get at this problem.
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Jeff Camp - Founder January 22, 2015 at 9:27 pm
Thanks, Sherry -- I think you'll appreciate lesson 8.1, which examines California's skimpy funding for education.
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glendalearn January 17, 2015 at 10:33 am
How have we as a state not been able to incorporate the best practices to let students succeed. We were not always this low. What influences distract our students from being able to learn?
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1karenmcgarry January 16, 2015 at 4:42 pm
Perhaps the testing climate has produced a problem and we are testing ability out of our learners, no matter the demographic. I would also like to offer the evidence on creative learning as having a positive impact on overall academic ability in those parts of the country where arts education are standard in the K-12 educational arena - CA does not have arts education as standard curriculum complnents in the K-5 level. Other states that do have arts programming may score higher as a result.
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Jeff Camp - Founder January 18, 2015 at 2:17 pm
Thanks, Karen. For more about testing, please see lessons 6.5 and 9.3. On the broad topic of creativity, see 1.8. For the arts, check lesson 6.8. A full table of contents of lessons in Ed100 is available at our lessons page, and the search function, always available at the top of the page (look for the magnifying glass icon), searches across all of our lesson pages and blog entries.
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stacy.c.banks March 8, 2016 at 12:01 pm
This is where parent-teacher groups (PTA, etc.) can have an impact. There are grants and funding available to help, but there need to be willing parent leaders and teachers to get it into the classrooms. Wouldn't it be great for teachers to assign various art projects as homework to solidify math or language concepts, even for the youngest grades?
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mistaire November 8, 2014 at 1:53 pm
California’s students are behind disregard of the subgroup: This is known fact, and a consistent fact for many many years.
The real question here is what has (have) been done to address the issue, and why the awful result continue to be a constant for California.
Aude J. (an active parent)
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