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Math, reading scores dipped in SF public schools after 2 years of pandemic disruptions

Students attend class on the first day of school at John O’Connell High School in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standar

After two years of pandemic disruptions, test scores plummeted in public schools across the nation—and California and San Francisco Unified School District are no exception. New data from the California Department of Education shows slipping math and English proficiency rates across SF’s public schools, particularly for its middle school students. 

Yet, San Francisco’s public K-12 schools continue to outpace state averages in math and English proficiency. And California—one of the last states to switch back to in-person learning—reported a smaller drop in math and reading scores compared with other states.

The new data indicates that, while San Francisco’s public schools were not immune to the negative impacts of remote learning, SFUSD emerged from the pandemic ahead of state and some national averages. 

Roughly 52% of SFUSD students met or exceeded proficiency standards for English, compared with a statewide rate of 47% in the 2021-22 academic year. Though proficiency rates for math sat at 46% on the district level, SF schools’ math scores still far outpaced the state’s average of 33%. 

The pandemic had a clear effect on testing, as overall scores dipped across the board from 2017 to 2022. On the district level, math proficiency in SF public schools fell most noticeably, dropping about 5% during the pandemic. Students performed better in literacy and reading, however, as English proficiency slipped less than one percentage point during the same time period. 

SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Matt Wayne said the results set a clear mandate for the schools under his purview. 

“This year’s results illustrate that we must continue to improve upon what is working and explore innovative new strategies for ensuring each student receives the high-quality instruction and equitable support required to thrive in the 21st century,” he wrote in a press release.  

Dynastii Wynn sits in the front row during her humanities class with professor Peter Hippard at Independence High School in San Francisco on Sept. 29, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

California measures English literacy and math proficiency by administering the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments to students from third through eighth grades, and in 11th grade. Smarter Balanced assessment data for the 2019-20 school year is not available due to the pandemic, and SFUSD used local testing measures for 2020-21. 

Proficiency Differs Among Student Groups

Test scores did not fall evenly across student groups and grades, however. 

The pandemic seemed to have hit SF’s middle schools the hardest, as math and English proficiency rates for grades five through eight plummeted between 2018 and 2022. The share of students in grades five through seven who scored proficient in English all dropped more than 4%, while math proficiency cratered even more dramatically. 

About 41% of seventh graders met math proficiency standards in 2021-22, a 12% drop from 2018-19 test scores. Fifth-, sixth- and eighth-grade math proficiency also decreased, all falling five percentage points or more in the same time period. 

When broken down by race and ethnicity, Black, Hispanic/Latino and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students scored disproportionately lower than their peers on English and Language Arts tests. 

About 82% of Black students in SFUSD did not meet proficiency standards for English, compared with 46% across the district. Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and American Indian students also scored below the district benchmark.  

Math scores showed an even greater disparity among racial and ethnic groups, with just 9% of Black students meeting the math proficiency standard. By comparison, 66% of Asian students and 64% of white students scored proficient in math in the 2021-22 school year. 

Nationwide Losses from the Pandemic

The California Department of Education’s literacy and math proficiency results echo findings from other student achievement studies—most of which show the long-term, sobering effects of the pandemic on student learning.

Reading and math scores from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also declined nationwide, with states like Virginia and Maine showing particularly significant declines in fourth grade reading scores. 

Yet, California was one of the few states to show some near-consistent results from 2019 to present.  

Fourth-grade reading proficiency scores in California, for example, slipped just two points between 2019 and 2022. Neighboring states like Oregon, Nevada and Utah all saw reading proficiency scores plummet more than seven points in the same period. 

And eighth-grade reading proficiency showed similar consistency: The percentage of California students performing at or above the NAEP reading proficiency standard was 30% in 2022, the same share as in 2019 and a 9% increase from 1998. 

California’s relative test score stability might come as a surprise to some who predicted that student achievement would suffer due to the state’s stricter remote-learning requirements during 2020 and into parts of 2021. 

A group of sixth graders sit in a roundtable discussion about the impact of Covid on Feb. 17, 2022 at James Denman Middle School. | Jesse Rogala

Of course, test scores offer just one snapshot of student performance and well-being. 

SFUSD has also seen major fluctuations in student attendance, enrollment and chronic absenteeism, with the pandemic widening the achievement gap and disproportionately affecting low-income families and students of color.  
Chronic absenteeism, in particular, doubled among SFUSD students from pre-pandemic levels, increasing from 14% to 28%, according to preliminary data.

CDE will release final data on attendance and absenteeism in early to mid-December.

Ida Mojadad contributed additional reporting for this story.