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Math Proficiency (see data for this topic)

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Why This Topic Is Important
Basic math skills are essential to navigate through life, and competence in mathematics is associated with future academic and economic success (1, 2). Math is more than an academic subject—quantitative literacy is a gateway to opportunity and a foundation for achievement in school, work, and life (1). Nationwide, increasing emphasis is being placed on children's proficiency in mathematics, science, technology, and engineering, recognizing the importance of these fields in the 21st century (2, 3). According to a recent assessment, the U.S. ranked 38th out of 71 countries in math scores among 15-year-olds (4). In California, student math scores consistently rank among the lowest in the nation, even though U.S. and California scores generally have improved since the 1990s (5). Further, large inequities persist in math achievement by student socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, disability status, and English proficiency, statewide and nationally (1, 5). Critical to addressing these gaps, leaders must work to ensure that all students (regardless of social position or circumstance) have equitable access to high-quality learning environments and math instruction (1).
For more information on math proficiency, see’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Burdman, P. (2018). The mathematics of opportunity: Rethinking the role of math in educational equity. Just Equations. Retrieved from:

2.  Murphey, D., et al. (2017). Making math count more for young Latino children. Child Trends Hispanic Institute. Retrieved from:

3.  Henry-Nickie, M. (2018). The 21st century digital workplace makes mathematics inescapable. Brookings Institution. Retrieved from:

4.  Desilver, D. (2017). U.S. students' academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from:

5.  National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). The nation's report card. Retrieved from:
Policy Implications
Math proficiency has become increasingly important in ensuring that students are prepared for a 21st century workforce and economy (1). Despite sweeping state and national education reforms over the past decade, student math scores in California have not improved substantially and achievement gaps persist by race/ethnicity, income level, English proficiency, and disability status (2). Further, while K–12 funding has increased in California, funding levels remain below the national average, and school districts continue to struggle financially (2).

Policymakers and school leaders face significant challenges in improving math proficiency and reducing inequities among California's 6+ million K–12 public school students, 60% of whom are economically disadvantaged (3). The state is also in the midst of revamping math instruction to align with Common Core standards while facing a shortage of math teachers (4, 5). Continued efforts and investments are needed over the long term to successfully carry out recent reforms, refine them, and ensure educational equity for all students (6, 7).

Policy and practice options that could improve math proficiency include:
  • Providing all children with access to affordable, high-quality preschool or kindergarten readiness programs, which lay the foundation for later achievement (1, 8)
  • Ensuring that the state's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan, Local Control Funding Formula, and new education standards are implemented effectively at the local level; in particular, ensuring that reforms successfully support low-income students, children of color, those with disabilities, English Learners, and other vulnerable students (2, 6, 9)
  • Creating a long-term funding solution for California's K–12 education system, and ensuring equitable distribution of qualified teachers and other school staff (2, 5, 8)
  • Continuing to support evidence-based strategies to address the state's shortage of math teachers, such as recruiting new teachers through forgivable loan programs and service scholarships, and creating incentives to retain experienced teachers; also, diversifying the teaching workforce and building the supply of skilled teachers in early education settings (1, 5, 7)
  • Ensuring that all students have access to high-quality, culturally responsive, Common Core-aligned math curricula and other classroom supports, and eliminating the practice of assigning students to math courses on the basis perceived abilities; also, providing school districts with adequate resources to improve math instruction, especially in Grades 3 through 8 (3, 7, 10)
  • Addressing teacher bias (implicit or explicit) and ensuring that teachers hold high expectations for all students; as part of this, ensuring teachers have opportunities for ongoing, school-level professional development and coaching opportunities (4, 7, 10)
  • Continuing to support pre-K–12 schools in creating positive school climates and developing comprehensive, evidence-based systems to address students' physical, emotional, behavioral, and other needs (1, 6, 8)
  • Expanding the state's education data system and improving accessibility in order to provide meaningful information to local educators and leaders; also, ensuring that the system effectively tracks the successes and failures of reform efforts (2, 3, 11)
For more information related to math proficiency and improving public education, see the Research & Links section on or visit EdSource, California Education GPS, and the Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse. Also see Policy Implications for other education topics in's Education & Child Care category.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Murphey, D., et al. (2017). Making math count more for young Latino children. Child Trends Hispanic Institute. Retrieved from:

2.  Public Policy Institute of California. (2020). California's future: K-12 education. Retrieved from:

3.  Warren, P., & Lafortune, J. (2019). Achievement in California's public schools: What do test scores tell us? Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from:

4.  Fensterwald, J. (2019). 10 California districts struggle, and find some success, as they shift to Common Core math. EdSource. Retrieved from:

5.  Darling-Hammond, L., et al. (2018). Teacher shortages in California: Status, sources, and potential solutions. Getting Down to Facts II. Retrieved from:

6.  O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Equality and quality in U.S. education: Systemic problems, systemic solutions. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from:

7.  Burdman, P. (2018). The mathematics of opportunity: Rethinking the role of math in educational equity. Just Equations. Retrieved from:

8.  Children Now. (2020). 2020 California children's report card: A survey of kids' well-being and a roadmap for the future. Retrieved from:

9.  California Department of Education. (2019). California ESSA consolidated state plan. Retrieved from:

10.  National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (n.d.). Principles to actions: Executive summary. Retrieved from:

11.  Koppich, J., et al. (2019). Developing a comprehensive data system to further continuous improvement in California. Policy Analysis for California Education. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
In 2019, among California public school students who took the CAASPP Smarter Balanced Summative Assessment for math, 40% met or exceeded their grade-level standard, up from 34% in 2015. Over the same period, the percentage of students demonstrating math proficiency rose in all but six counties, though county-level figures vary considerably, from 20% to 58% in 2019. Statewide, gaps in math proficiency by English language fluency and socioeconomic status are wide. For example, in 2019, students proficient in English were more than three times as likely to meet or exceed their grade-level standard when compared with English Learners, and non-socioeconomically disadvantaged students were more than twice as likely as their socioeconomically disadvantaged peers to score at or above their grade-level standard.

Across all California race/ethnicity groups with data, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding their grade-level standard in math increased between 2015 and 2019. Still, disparities remain. In 2019, nearly three-quarters (74%) of Asian American students in California scored at or above their grade-level standard, compared with one-third or fewer African American/black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students.