The pandemic set progress back for Berkeley Unified students in math, while results held steady in reading, according to test scores from the California Department of Education. Scores fell more steeply for Berkeley high schoolers than students in elementary and middle school.

Across the country, the pandemic erased years of academic progress, bringing average test scores down to numbers not seen in two decades. In California, test scores released by the Department of Education in October paint the most extensive picture of the pandemic’s impact on students since 2019, the last time the majority of students took the state’s Smarter Balanced Test.

The declines were not so steep in Berkeley as they were statewide. The percentage of BUSD students meeting state math standards dropped 4 percentage points, to 58%, compared with a 7 percentage point drop to 33% across California. In English, the percentage of Berkeley students meeting state standards stayed constant, at 67%, compared with a decline of 4 percentage points to 47% across the state.

“It was a time of much transition and a lot of interrupted learning,” said Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel. She said the district was mostly able to withstand the challenges. “The fact that Berkeley was able to stay relatively stable after the pandemic speaks to that.” 

Scores fell the most for students in high school and, to a lesser extent, middle school, while elementary school students made gains in reading. Scores across grade levels declined more in math than in reading, mirroring trends in other California school districts.

Berkeley’s elementary and middle school scores were more resilient through the pandemic when compared with other California school districts with a similar share of low-income students, according to a study of thousands of districts conducted by researchers at Harvard and Stanford University. 

The data in the study do not include scores from high schools, where Berkeley saw the most significant academic impacts of the pandemic. For 11th graders, the results were flipped: BUSD 11th graders’ scores shot down faster than scores for 11th graders in the rest of the state. 

The percent of 11th graders in BUSD who met state standards fell 9.5 percentage points in English to 66% and 8 percentage points in math to 44%. In California, 11th graders’ test scores dipped 2.5 percentage points in English and 5 in math, though Berkeley students still performed well above state averages. 

College readiness in Berkeley also plummeted last year, to 58% of students meeting the requirements to enroll at a state university. Over the last four years, an average of 68% of students met those requirements. (Ruth Steele Brown, director of BUSD’s research department, said at an Oct. 26 school board meeting that many of those students were short on their English credits: Either they hadn’t taken four years of English or passed all four of those classes with a C average.)

Ford Morthel said the district was working to “understand the dip” in scores for 11th graders, which was unusual. In California, 11th graders tended to see smaller drops in scores, compared with other grades.The release of the test scores did not resolve a national debate over whether districts that kept students in remote learning longer, fared worse. A study published by Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor who became a voice for reopening schools, found that more time spent learning online was associated with poorer learning outcomes. Sean Reardon, a researcher behind the Harvard and Stanford study, argued that school poverty played a bigger role

Academic disparities still a ‘crisis’ at BUSD, but many gaps did not widen dramatically

In the five years leading up to the pandemic, test scores in BUSD had been climbing gradually upward. Results were improving for low-income students, Black and Latino students and white students, though the disparities were substantial. 

The pandemic disrupted that progress: Math scores regressed to 2016 levels, and scores in English leveled off. The exception was Asian students, who improved dramatically between 2019 and 2022.

Disparities in test scores for students of different races and ethnicities remain stark. Last year, just 19% of Black students in BUSD met state standards in math, compared with 43% of Latino students, 65% of Asian students and 74% of white students. 

Berkeley school board president Ka’Dijah Brown said she was “incredibly disturbed and upset” by the results and called the situation a crisis.

To improve outcomes, Brown said the school district should employ “intervention and potentially intervention in the way that we’ve never done before, especially for these subgroups of students.”

The story of how the pandemic impacted achievement gaps in BUSD isn’t simple. But learning loss did not, on average, hit marginalized Berkeley students harder, as many feared it might.

Ford Morthel attributes this to the intervention strategies employed by the district. These included targeted tutoring, a new parent institute for Spanish-speaking families and a program that brought some struggling students back to school early. Plus, the Berkeley Public Schools Fund provided resources like Chromebooks and direct cash to families throughout the pandemic.

Low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities continue to perform far below the district average on state tests. But over the course of the pandemic, their scores fell less or even improved a little, compared with the average BUSD student and compared with similar students across the state. In other words, achievement gaps between did not widen for these categories of students, which holds true in California, too.

The disparities between white students and Latino and Black students grew in math but shrunk in reading, though not by much in either case. 

Black students’ math scores declined from 22% to 19%. Scores for Black students across California dropped even further, falling 5 percentage points to 15%. It’s the first year that Black students in BUSD scored higher on the math test than Black students in California.  

White students’ math scores tumbled nearly 8 percentage points, though they still outperformed all other groups in the district, with 74% of white students meeting state standards in math. 

Asian students improved by 9 points in English and 3 points in math over the pandemic, bucking state trends, and the gap grew between their scores and those of Black and Latino students. 

There were several BUSD schools that saw tremendous improvements in certain students’ test scores. At Rosa Parks Elementary, the number of low-income students who met state standards in English rose significantly and, in the fifth grade, nearly quadrupled to 67%. At Sylvia Mendez, Latino students improved 8 percentage points in math and 9 in English and 69% of third graders met state standards, an improvement of nearly 26 percentage points.

Featured image: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...