Last year, California K–12 school test scores showed that the math proficiency of the median eighth-grade student was at about the level of a fifth-grader. Hispanic and Black students, who represent over 60 percent of the state’s student population, performed even worse, with proficiency barely above the level of a third-grader.

“Horrible,” “awful,” and “unacceptable” are a few adjectives that describe this outcome. Many of these students will never catch up, because mathematics builds on itself. Many of these students will never succeed in technical fields such as engineering or computer science because these fields are based on mathematics. Some of these students may not even develop the mathematical knowledge to become financially literate. Many may economically struggle throughout their lives, being shut out of high-paying STEM jobs. Many may require some form of public assistance as adults, as the grossly deficient education they are receiving will leave them poorly prepared to earn a decent living in a world that will almost certainly leave them behind.

How many kids are we talking about? There are currently about 5.9 million students enrolled in California public schools, making the scale of the problem nothing short of a disaster. And while the magnitude of this educational deficiency is likely the result of remote learning during COVID, the deficiency itself has been around for decades; a study by the RAND Corporation, “California’s K–12 Public Schools: How Are They Doing?” dates California’s educational failures back to the 1970s.

The 2022 test results have been available for months, but the California Department of Education decided to withhold the results and not release them until an undetermined date later in the year. For parents and educators, this means that students are well into their next school year without the necessary data to determine what support and remediation they may need.

Why wait to release the results? According to one spokesperson for the Education Department, the delay is because they want to release the rest results at the same time they release other metrics, such as absenteeism and school suspensions, though no compelling reason was given for tying the test score release with these other data and releasing all the data at the same time was never done in the past. Another person in the Education Department said the department was still reviewing the data for validation, but if that were the case, then why let local districts release the data? Some schools released test scores early last summer.

Others note that the delay may be politically motivated, because the test scores will show continued learning outcome deficiencies, so bad that they might impact the November elections involving education leaders. This includes the election for state school superintendent, with incumbent Tony Thurmond running against Lance Christensen, as well as many local school board races.

Enter EdSource, an independent education organization whose mission is to inform the public about state education issues. EdSource asked for the test score results in August and was rebuffed by the Education Department. EdSource next sent a letter to the Education Department from its attorney. The lawyer didn’t pull any punches, stating, “EdSource considers delay tantamount to denial as it effectively robs the public of its vital role in overseeing the CDE [California Department of Education] and individual districts and in holding both accountable to its students and the public. This is especially important during what continues to be one of the most challenging and impactful times to our educational system due to the COVID pandemic.”

EdSource challenged CDE’s decision to withhold the test scores: “The CDE cannot identify any ‘public’ interest in non-disclosure that could justify its denial position, let alone an interest that ‘clearly outweighs’ the substantial public interest in access to this information.”

David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael–based open government group, argued that there are no exemptions in the law that allow the government to withhold records from the public because they are inconvenient or embarrassing, saying, “The state can’t talk out of both sides of its mouth” by giving districts data that shows their test results and then refusing to release the overall data set.”

The Center for Reinventing Public Education stated in a report issued this month, “The academic, social, and mental-health needs are real, they are measurable, and they must be addressed quickly in order to avoid long-term consequences.” EdSource’s staff writers added, “Waiting until later this year to release how students scored last spring will delay needed public discussions on how districts should respond to serious setbacks in learning including shifting funding immediately and next summer to accelerate learning.”

Timely release of these data is critical for helping students get back on track. Less than 50 percent of third graders tested at grade level or above in English language arts during the 2018–19 school year, before the pandemic stalled learning. Nearly two-thirds of today’s third graders are reading below grade level.

EdSource’s legal challenge appears to have worked. The Education Department has reversed course, indicating it will release the data this month—though the release date may be after some ballots are returned—stating that “there is no reason to withhold the data.” This statement raises the question of why the department made such a quick reversal after they indicated that the data was incomplete and needed validation.

California’s public education system is failing most of our children, despite taxpayers spending nearly $20,000 per pupil per year. This failure is chronic. It continues year after year, decade after decade, and the root cause is a politically influenced education system that desperately needs a complete do-over.

The status quo simply cannot continue if we are committed to investing in our children. The status quo is failed leadership, lack of accountability, union work rules that protect poorly performing teachers, and the failure to reward high-performing teachers and implement best teaching practices.

There are millions of children in California who are struggling, following in the footsteps of those whom we have failed earlier. This can be turned around. But nothing short of a complete reformation of our education system will give our kids the education they need to be able to learn, compete, and succeed in a rapidly changing world.