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California’s Math and Literacy Skills: A Troubling State of Affairs

California’s Educational Shortcomings: Falling Behind in Math and Literacy Skills

California, often touted as a leader in progressive policies, falls short in crucial areas such as public education, particularly when it comes to math and language skills. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress test results released last fall, California’s nearly 6 million public school students ranked among the lowest in the nation for mathematics and reading abilities compared to other states. Moreover, the state’s prolonged school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic further contributed to a decline in educational achievement. A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that proficiency in English language arts fell from 51% to 47%, while math proficiency declined from 40% to 33%. The impact was even more pronounced for low-income students, with only 35% meeting state standards in English language arts and 21% proficient in math, compared to higher-income students’ 65% and 51% proficiency in the respective subjects. These troubling trends highlight California’s consistent lag in national rankings, placing 38th in math and 33rd in reading proficiency.

Adding to the evidence, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies disclosed new data on numeracy, or adults’ ability to use math skills in their daily lives. California ranked near the bottom of states in this regard, on par with Georgia and other states in the second lowest tier. Out of the state’s 58 counties, Marin was the only one to achieve a high-ranking score. Coincidentally, the numeracy report coincided with the adoption of a new math instruction framework by the state Board of Education. Proponents of the framework claim it will enhance students’ computational skills by making the content more culturally relevant. However, critics, including Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argue that this approach undermines the importance of math facts. The heated debate over math instruction mirrors the conflicts seen in the realm of reading skills, where traditionalists ultimately prevailed. Nevertheless, the board made minor adjustments to appease detractors but maintained a focus on de-emphasizing rote skills and promoting later introduction to algebra.

Unquestionably, California faces a significant deficiency in math skills, impacting both students and adults alike. The prevalence of “innumeracy” – the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy – has far-reaching consequences, from hindering individuals’ ability to manage personal finances to depriving the economy of a skilled workforce.

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