California Reading Report Card
Reading is the most fundamental skill children must learn to succeed in school and in life. But today, half of California's students do not read at grade level. What's worse, among low-income students of color, over 65% read below grade level. Few ever catch up.
But in some districts, students are succeeding. To identify those districts, the CA Reading Coalition ranked California school districts on student achievement in English Language Arts (ELA) for a key subset of third graders (see below, "How the Rankings Work"). Third grade reading achievement is vital to long-term student success. Low early reading achievement is highly correlated with low high-school grades, failure to graduate, and likelihood of going to prison.
Key Findings (read the presentation for more)
Top districts had double the percent of students* in our analysis at grade level vs. low-performing districts (50% vs. 25%), serving similar students and with lower funding. On average high performing districts have a similar share of high-need enrollment (62% vs. 75%), while low performing districts have higher funding levels ($14 thousand per pupil vs. $12 thousand). There are top performing districts with over 90% high-need enrollment, and low performing districts with less than 20%.
The clear message is that it is not the students themselves, or the level of resources, that drive student reading achievement - the primary drivers are district focus on reading, management practices, and curriculum and instruction choices. The Top 30 Districts come in all types: urban, rural, and suburban, across 10 different counties, with high-need students levels ranging from 39% to 96%. Any district can succeed at teaching reading.
A surprising finding is that none of the top performing districts are located in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area contains nearly half of the lowest performing districts, including large districts like San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified, and West Contra Costa County Unified. By contrast, Southern California has 80% of the high performing districts, led by Los Angeles County, where over half of all ranked districts are in the top 20% statewide. Fresno County is also a standout, with 4 of the top 30 districts (including 2 of the top 5), while making up only 1% of all ranked districts.
How the Rankings Work
Districts are ranked by the percent of socio-economically disadvantaged (SED) Hispanic/Latino (Latinx) students who "meet or exceed" grade level for the CAASPP 3rd grade ELA test. We combined the two most recent CAASPP cycles (2017-18 and 2018-19; no testing took place in 2020) to account for variation between years.
Our rankings are based on one particular student group - SED Latinx 3rd graders (for a more detail, visit our "Why Latinx 3rd Graders?" page). District comparisons must focus on specific sub-groups - an "apples to apples" comparison. Not only do SED Latinx students make up 43% of California K-12 enrollment, they are also less likely to have outside learning supports than families with more resources, higher educational attainment, and more English literacy. Results for these students therefore help us see how effectively schools teach reading, separate from the contribution from parents and outside resources. We believe that better results for these students almost certainly mean better reading instruction for all.
The rankings include districts with 100 or more SED Latinx 3rd graders. This provides a larger sample for each district, less susceptible to year to year variation. These districts make up 287 of California's over 1000 school districts, and enroll 72% of all students.
For data sources, visit our Sources & Notes page.
* "Students" refers to SED Latinx 3rd graders throughout. See our "Why Latinx 3rd Graders" page.