In the second full school year after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools, test scores in Berkeley improved in math but remained stagnant in English, largely returning to pre-pandemic levels and outpacing the rest of California, where results still lag behind 2019.

The pandemic interrupted years of rising test scores in Berkeley, as it did in the rest of the state.  But the declines weren’t as steep in Berkeley, and now state test scores released last week show the district’s recovery has been more robust.

“BUSD continues to buck that trend — as we should,” Chris Albeck, BUSD’s director of curriculum and instruction, said at the Oct. 18 school board meeting.

Overall, 67% of Berkeley students met state standards in reading last year, a number that hasn’t budged throughout the pandemic. In math, 61% of students met state standards, up five percentage points from last year and on par with results in 2019.

When school moved online, math scores fluctuated more widely than English scores. Education researchers suspect that’s because students are less likely to be exposed to math concepts outside of school.

“We have so so so much to be proud of … especially coming after COVID and the learning loss that was associated with that,” school board director Ka’Dijah Brown said at the school board meeting.

During the pandemic, the Berkeley Public Schools Fund distributed laptops to students in need and made sure students could log on to the internet, helping address a crucial gap in access to technology that held back students in other parts of the state. Since schools returned in person, BUSD has run myriad programs designed to address learning loss. 

But recovery has been uneven.

Reading scores for Black students fell substantially last year. Just 26% of Black students met state standards in reading, down from 30% the previous year, widening an achievement gap that has long been one of the worst in the nation. Black students improved slightly in math, though more students still met state standards in 2019.

Much of the decline comes from a big drop in reading scores for Black students in 11th grade. The number of Black 11th graders who met state reading standards plummeted from 33% in 2022 to 10% last year. More students took the state test last year than in years prior, which may have an impact on the scores, but the decline goes deeper than that.

“For African American students, we still need to focus on literacy, and really need to figure out how to make sure that our babies are ready to engage and really demonstrate all of their amazing [skills] as readers and writers in our classrooms,” Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said at the meeting.

Asian students have improved substantially in reading and math since 2019, while scores for Latino students have remained relatively constant. White students haven’t made up a big drop in test scores during the pandemic. Last year, 77% of white students met state standards in math, up from 74% but still well below results in 2019.

Ford Morthel has declared a new focus on literacy instruction. Last year, BUSD assembled a new curriculum and instruction team and conducted a review that found gaps in its literacy  curriculum in phonics and phonemic awareness. Their work stems from a class-action lawsuit that settled in 2021 and requires that BUSD use research-based approaches to literacy instruction and implement universal screening for dyslexia, among other changes.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to disrupt patterns or predictability that continues to lay in our data,” Albeck said at the board meeting.

Featured photo: Students in Laura Kretschmar’s 6th-grade students class at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

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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,...