Silicon Valley Made Little Progress in 2017 in Meeting Math and Language Arts Standards

By John Melville

In 2017, Silicon Valley’s students made minimal progress on key statewide exams that measure proficiency in foundational skills and readiness for future education, including 3rd grade Language Arts, 8th grade Mathematics, and 11th grade exams for both subjects.


This year about the same percentage of the Valley’s 8th graders met or exceeded the Smarter Balanced* state standards in mathematics (53.3%) as in 2016 (53%).  This is after a jump from 49% in 2015 in the share of local 8th graders who met the math standards.  The pattern was similar for 3rd grade language arts.  About the same percentage of Silicon Valley 3rd graders met or exceeded state standards in language arts in 2017 (55.1%) as in 2016 (54.7%), after rising from 2015’s figure of 51.7%.

Silicon Valley does continue to outpace California by a wide margin in 2017.  Just as in 2016, only 36% of California 8th graders met the math standard compared to 53% of Silicon Valley 8th graders.

What remains striking is the large achievement gap by ethnicity.  Only 26 percent of African American and 24 percent of Hispanic or Latino 8th graders met or exceeded state standards on the Smarter Balanced mathematics exam (and the latter was down from 25% in 2016).  At the same time, 82 percent of Asian students and 69 percent of Caucasian students met or exceeded the standard.

2017 - 8thMath

What about Silicon Valley students who are getting close to graduating from high school?  Overall, less than half of the region’s 11th graders (48%) met the Smarter Balanced math standards in 2017.  While this performance is much better than the California average (32%), the fact remains that more than half of Silicon Valley students who are about to either enter the workforce or postsecondary education are not proficient in mathematics. Moreover, only 85% of local 11th graders took the Smarter Balanced exam in 2017, down from 91% in 2016.

Again, there are substantial differences by ethnicity.  Only one in five African American and Hispanic or Latino 11th graders in Silicon Valley (19%) met or exceeded the math standard in 2017, compared to 61% of Caucasian and 78% of Asian students.

2017 - 11thMathThe performance in Language Arts was better, but achievement gaps remain.  In 2017, 69% of Silicon Valley 11th graders met or exceeded the Smarter Balanced standard, which was higher than the California average of 60%.  However, less than half of African American (46%) and Hispanic or Latino 11th graders (49%) were proficient in Language Arts, compared to Caucasian (81%) and Asian students (86%).

What do all these percentages mean?

2017 - 11thEnglish


In 2017, just over 10,000 Hispanic or Latino 11th graders took the Smarter Balanced mathematics exam in Silicon Valley, and only about 2,000 scored proficient or higher.  About 5,400 Hispanic or Latino 11th graders didn’t meet the standard in Language Arts.  And, Hispanic or Latino students were the largest group of test takers in Silicon Valley (36%).  This means that although many Silicon Valley innovation companies are hungry to employ home-grown talent, the largest group of test takers in our region are neither STEM-workforce ready nor, if going to college, prepared to major in postsecondary STEM fields.

In aggregate across all ethnicities, out of about 29,000 11th grade students who took the exams in 2017, almost 15,000 were not proficient in math and about 9,000 were not proficient in Language Arts.  Thousands of students are preparing to leave high school ill-prepared for work or postsecondary education.  Moreover, when we step back and observe preparedness by ethnicity, it’s painfully clear that students of color are in particular being left behind in one of the most prosperous regions of the country.

One other point.  Our math achievement gap is actually larger than the California average.  Our gap between the lowest and highest performing groups is 60%, while California overall is 56%.  If our regional economy requires a higher level of STEM-related skills because of its higher concentration of innovation industry jobs, and if we value increasing diversity in the workforce and providing local youth with the opportunity to participate in those jobs, then we clearly must up our game substantially.

Let us know what you think needs to be done.

*Smarter Balanced is an assessment system developed to align with the Common Core standards, which are “challenging students to understand subject matter more deeply, think more critically, and apply their learning to the real world. To measure these new state standards, educators from Smarter Balanced states worked together to develop new, high-quality assessments in English and math for grades 3–8 and high school. These Smarter Balanced assessments provide more accurate and meaningful information about what students are learning by adapting to each student’s ability, giving teachers and parents better information to help students succeed in school and after.” (see

 John Melville is Co-CEO of Collaborative Economics.

8th Grade Math: A Bellwether for STEM Success

By Alysa Cisneros

Tech companies are not the only ones who would benefit from closing the 8th grade math achievement gap. This is a major concern for parents, as well.

My daughter, who is mixed race, just started 6th grade, and is currently meeting standards in math. As both a parent and an education policy professional, I am very aware of the statistics surrounding young women of color in math. Holding her interest in math over these next two years will be critical, even if she chooses not to enter a STEM field later in life. Computational thinking and mastering basic algebraic concepts are key components to learning how to think critically. This is an important skill for professionals and workers of every stripe. Students who struggle with 8th grade math miss out on a computational thinking foundation that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

To ensure that my daughter stays on top of math achievement and doesn’t fall through the gap, her teachers work with her on a very individual level. They let her correct mistakes, elevating her self-efficacy and willingness to make errors, learn from them, and try again. We are fortunate to be in a district where every student’s learning is addressed in this way. It is wonderful that there are plenty of resources to support this style of teaching, though not every math-8th-gradedistrict has this capability.

Diversifying the STEM pipeline is one of the most pressing issues facing the Silicon Valley. Not only is a diverse workforce crucial important to raising up all of our communities in the tides of our robust local economy, but many see it as critical to business success. Diverse teams are often the most successful teams, according to McKinsey, and inclusive hiring practices have been adopted by some of Silicon Valley’s largest and most respected employers.

But herein lies the problem: how do companies source diverse, homegrown STEM talent? Often, there is a dearth of local, diverse candidates to meet the demand for a more inclusive workplace. This achievement gap can be traced back to one critical stage in K-12 education: meeting or exceeding standards in 8th grade math.

Students who meet or exceed these standards are far more likely to continue onto STEM educations and careers. Hence, increasing the number of local 8th graders who meet and exceed math standards is a good start. “Mission accomplished” would be all students, regardless of their background, arrive in high school with a solid foundation in math, paving the way for future success in STEM courses and the option to pursue it as a career.

As a region, Silicon Valley outperforms California in terms of how many students are prepared to tackle high school math. According to the SVCIP 2017 report, 53% of our 8th graders meet or exceed math standards, compared to just under 40% of Californians overall. Despite an overall higher percentage of high school math readiness, disparities between racial group and gender success remain pronounced in Silicon Valley math achievement.

Organizations and programs like ALearn; Elevate Math; and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s program partnership with the Mayor’s office, STEM with Mayor Sam, all work to provide added enrichment to catch students in middle school and keep them from falling through the achievement gap in 8th grade. Working in late elementary and early middle school, students who are not quite proficient, but also are not too far behind, can be identified and targeted for extra help and mentorship to bring them up to speed. Most of these programs also focus on parent and family involvement to build a learning community. These programs operating in high-need districts can be game changers for the students and families who participate.

Individual programs and efforts are heartening, and change lives. Robust public/private partnerships between industry leaders and school districts have been used to great effect in Oakland and San Francisco. These cities are building comprehensive computer science and STEM programs in their schools with significant financial and volunteer commitments from regional companies. Bringing Silicon Valley employers together with South Bay school districts to seed and develop a strong early intervention program could change the education and career trajectory for countless students. 8th grade math is the single most accurate bellwether for math success in high school and beyond. For more equitable outcomes, we must also think about the experiences students have with STEM leading up to the critical 8th grade assessment.


Alysa Cisneros is Education Policy & Programs Associate at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.