California assessment results illuminate racial achievement gaps

On October 24, the California Department of Education released the results of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, according to a Berkeley Unified School District press release.


On October 24, the California Department of Education released the results of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, according to a Berkeley Unified School District press release.

As reported by the press release, the data highlights students’ test performances during the 2021-22 school year. In the future, BUSD will use both local data and future data to develop a full understanding of students’ achievement and will use these scores to inform instruction and improve student outcomes.

“The Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) is one common assessment used in California to measure how students are doing in English & Math,” said Keldon Clegg, Academic Choice (AC) teacher and Berkeley International High School (BIHS) coordinator. “There’s a similar assessment in science, but it’s not technically part of the SBA.”

According to Cassandra Tesch, BHS’s dean of attendance, the scores gathered from this test are used by the district to evaluate performance in Math and English, informing the school on how to set goals to help students improve. “You would do the SBA multiple years in a row and you would look to see if your results are changing year to year,” said Clegg, adding onto Tesch. “That’s the main way it would be used and for BHS, we mainly use the SBA to measure our writing in ninth and eleventh grade.”

Students can use their SBA results for the Early Assessment Program, which states that if students are proficient in the designated subjects, they are no longer required to take fundamental English and Math classes in their freshman year of college, according to Ruth Steele-Brown, the director of Berkeley Research, Evaluation, and Assessment.

However, some students, including Molly McLean, a senior in AC, don’t think these tests are necessary or useful, as they don’t improve students’ grades or academics.

“Why waste a class period on something that isn’t counting?” McLean said. “They’d rather have the time to study other things.”

Average subject proficiency in BUSD and California.

Eliot Hertenstein

She added that the tests don’t reflect students’ abilities, as students have different ways of learning, and the material tested is not covered in class in the same way.

Thouati de Tazoult echoed these sentiments, stating that the downside of these tests is that they aren’t testing what students can accomplish in the real world, just what they complete in a few hours.

“I can write a decent essay in an hour, but no one writes essays in an hour,” Thouati de Tazoult said. “I want to know what I can write in a week.”

However, Clegg argued that the test is valuable in some ways, saying that students may find it useful to earn the seal of biliteracy, which is an award that a student can earn when they’re in twelfth grade based on their proficiency and achievements. According to the California Department of Education website, the State Seal of Biliteracy is marked by a gold seal on a students’ transcript or diploma, which recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, writing, and reading one or more languages in addition to English. “It’s hard to know how the data actually impacts us or matters because (of) the participation rate,” Clegg said. “Since we haven’t had a large amount of participation, the data hasn’t been very helpful… There’s so many data points to use to measure or look at student success. It’s not often brought up as one that we use because we’re not sure how reliable it is.” Clegg also explained that teachers are unaware of the content tested, so the SBA assessments don’t inform them of which specific topics students struggle with most. However, patterns across the board for a whole group of students about a broader subject may still reveal larger issues that teachers should explore, he added.

Additionally, Tesch explained how standardized tests are infamous for the blindspots and bias that come with them. She emphasized the importance of students understanding that the tests only measure certain learning targets. Tesch also reflected on educational disparities, and the role SBA, as well as other evaluations, play in pinpointing them. She added that how comfortable students are with the question types and the testing style impacts their results, which is determined by the practice resources available to students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. She described the importance of ensuring that all students have the opportunity to try out the practice tests for free on the SBA website. “Equitable performance on SBA goes deeper than this test alone. We have to look at student engagement overall in school, student attendance, student access to resources that set them up for academic success,” Tesch said.