a higher bar

Scores on new PARCC tests show most Colorado kids failing to meet academic expectations

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

Most Colorado students are far short of where they should be in English language arts and math, according to much-anticipated results of new, more difficult state tests released Thursday.

State education officials have long warned that the first round of PARCC scores covering grades three through 11 all but certainly would paint a bleak picture. Those predictions were on target.

In language arts, the percentages of Colorado students rated as meeting or exceeding expectations ranged from a high of about 43 percent in 4th grade to a low of 37 percent in 10th grade.

Students did even worse in math, with percentages ranging from about 19 percent in 8th grade to 37 percent in 3rd grade. Reaching conclusions about how older students performed is more difficult because of an array of different math tests given to students in middle and high school.

The release of the scores is a key juncture in a years-long effort to develop and put in place stronger academic standards, and introduce next-generation tests to see how students measure up.

Data Center | Search our database for PARCC results here.

Unlike derided bubble tests of old, PARCC tests developed for a collective of states including Colorado pledge to reward critical thinking and problem solving with more sophisticated questions given online. The academic standards are supposed to put students on track for going to college or starting work.

Yet PARCC has been heavily criticized in some quarters, both as part of a broader backlash against standardized tests and for perceived shortcomings including lack of a proven track record.

The results made public Thursday during a state Board of Education meeting share one trait in common with their predecessors — they showed wide gaps separating students’ scores based on race and income.

Participation also was lower compared to past state tests, with overall participation rates at 82 percent in English language arts and 85 percent in math. Much of that was driven by high schoolers skipping the tests. Data released Thursday showed tens of thousands of students, most in higher grades, opted out of the PARRC tests as a result of parent refusals.

Asked about the PARCC scores after a Capitol budget briefing, Gov. John Hickenlooper said, “When we adopted these new higher standards we knew there’d be some sticker shock in the first couple of years. We’re resetting the bar.”

“The point about these higher standards is we want kids and parents to have conversations about what they want to be,” he said.

State board chairman Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said at the board meeting that it’s impossible to tell whether the results mean the school system is a “catastrophic failure,” or whether other factors are at work.

“If you take the scores at face value, almost two-thirds of our students have failed,” he said. “I have a hard time believing that number.”


Although PARCC backers promised quicker, more meaningful results, this year’s test is an exception because of the extra work involved in an entirely new enterprise, officials say. Thursday’s announcement only covered state-level data. Not until Dec. 11 will the tests results of individual districts and schools be revealed.

Districts then will distribute individual student reports to parents, on their own timelines.

The percentages of students scoring in the top two levels on PARCC — meaning they met or exceeded expectations — are considerably lower than those achieving the top two levels on the last state tests, called TCAP.

But state education officials have repeatedly stressed that the results can’t be compared because the two sets of tests are so different in their expectations and in the academic standards on which they’re based.

“These scores don’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison to old test scores,” interim education commissioner Elliott Asp said in a statement. “The new tests measure different things – such as where students are in developing the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills outlined in the Colorado Academic Standards. We should all consider these scores as a new baseline from which we will measure the future success of Colorado students.”

State education officials have emphasized the concept of a baseline – that Colorado students and schools are starting fresh with new tests whose results and impacts will have to be reviewed over multiple years.

Other states that have switched testing systems have seen scores rise after multiple years of giving new exams. Kentucky is one example cited frequently by supporters of the standards and assessments.


Almost everything about the tests given in Colorado is new. The exams are more rigorous, they are given online — a paper-and-pencil option was available under some circumstances — and they are the first tests to be fully based on Common Core state standards in math and English.

A separate writing test — long a feature of TCAP and its predecessor, CSAP — is gone. Writing now is part of the overall language arts tests. Writing is also incorporated into math test items.

Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessments for the state education department, told state board members Thursday it was fair to expect that Colorado students’ scores will be low initially.

The Common Core standards were fully put into practice just last academic year, and teachers and students are still becoming familiar with them, she said. Zurkowski said scores are expected to rise over time.

The switch to the new tests is like “moving from the JV team to the varsity team,” she told reporters. “… The game is harder.”

Zurkowski also cited instances of Colorado students’ PARCC performance closely mirroring the results of other more established tests, the ACT college entrance exam and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. That, Zurkowski said, “allows us to have confidence in the results.”

The tougher tests, she said, are meant to stem the tide of students graduating high school ill-prepared and finding themselves stuck paying for remedial courses in college for which they receive no credit.

PARCC tests also have five levels of student achievement – exceeded expectations, met expectations, approached expectations, partially met expectations and didn’t meet expectations. The TCAP system had four levels, as do the current state science and social studies tests.

The PARCC tests also sparked significant numbers of parents and students skipping the tests altogether. While test participation by elementary school students exceeded 95 percent, student opt-out rates reached 31 percent on 11th grade math tests and 25 percent on all 10th grade math scores.

Among other highlights of the first PARCC test results:

Overall scores – Relatively small percentages of students exceeded expectations, ranging from 4 percent of third graders to 12 percent of 7th graders in language arts. The percentages were smaller for math. Six percent of third graders were at the top level, but it was only 1 or 2 percent in eight other grades. In the category of didn’t meet expectations, 10th graders recorded the highest for language arts with 23 percent. In math, 26 percent of of 8th graders didn’t meet expectations.

English and math – The percentages of students meeting or exceeding expectations in language arts generally were higher than the percentages for math. In middle and high school, 30.4 percent of students who took the algebra I test exceeded or met expectations. Those percentages were lower in the other five math tests.

Gender – Girls performed significantly better than boys on language arts tests, while the percentages in the five levels were much closer in math.

Ethnicity – The tests results showed achievement gaps between ethnic groups similar to those seen in previous tests and other measures of achievement. On the 7th grade language arts test, for example, 58.3 percent of Asian students and 51.7 percent of whites met or exceeded expectations. But 24.7 percent of Hispanics and 25.6 percent of black students were in the two top categories.

At-risk – There also were wide gaps between students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and those who are not. In 5th grade math, for example, 14.9 percent of at-risk students met or exceeded expectations, compared to 41.9 percent of other students.

Language – English language learners are classified in different categories based on their levels of proficiency. The least-proficient students scored very poorly in general, with test performance rising significantly for more-proficient students in both language arts and math.

State Board of Education members used the platform of the PARCC release to voice familiar positions about academic standards, tests and using the results to hold schools and districts accountable.

Republican Debora Scheffel, of Parker, said she believes the tests measure language skills rather than content knowledge, dramatically disadvantaging students whose second language is English or who have not developed great vocabulary skills. Other board members made similar arguments.

A harsh critic of testing from the other side of the political spectrum, Democrat Val Flores of Denver, said the tests waste money and don’t help poor and minority students.

“Education is about teaching and learning,” she said. “It’s not about accountability. It is not about high-stakes testing.”

But Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat, saw something positive in the stronger scores among younger students.

“These are the children who have been living the new standards and the new ways and the new strategies and techniques,” she said. “They’ve lived it. Our older grade students have not had that experience.”

On past tests, the percentage of students scoring in the top two of the four levels was an important factor in school and district ratings.

The State Board of Education hasn’t yet decided how the new five-level system will be used for accountability and may not do so until next year.

The state is in a one-year pause in use of state test results for either accountability or educator evaluation. So the test results released Thursday won’t be a factor in those things.

Proponents of the Common Core and the two multi-state tests, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, have long argued for the value of being able to accurately compare the performance of students in different states. While federal law long has required state to test in language arts and math, each state has used it own academic standards and tests.

Most of the nine active PARCC participants haven’t yet reported full results, so it’s not possible to fully compare the performance of Colorado students with those in other states.

New Jersey and New Mexico have reported data comparable to Colorado’s. Across most grades and subjects, New Jersey students performed markedly better than those in Colorado. But New Mexico trails Colorado across grades and subjects.

Learn more about the background of assessment in Colorado in Chalkbeat’s archive of testing stories.

Chalkbeat Colorado deputy bureau chief Nicholas Garcia contributed information to this report. 

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.

Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.