Datahead

Denver and Aurora schools showed modest gains on state tests. But gaps still remain.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

Two large Colorado school districts with substantial numbers of students living in poverty — Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools — showed modest improvement in the second year of state tests measuring students’ mastery of tougher academic standards.

Despite those gains, both districts still lag behind the state average — and in Aurora’s case, the gap is substantial.

Overall, the state education department’s release Thursday of district- and school-level results from PARCC math and English tests amounted to a mixed bag for most, with scores creeping up in some subjects and grades, slipping in others or remaining steady.

The picture is further muddied by a lack of student growth data that measure changes in the same group of students over time — data state officials are still compiling. Low test participation rates in higher grades also call into question district and school level scores, officials concede.

The state last month released state-level 2016 PARCC results, which showed more elementary school students were meeting expectations, while middle school scores were flat.

For the first time since the state overhauled its annual testing system in 2014 to align to the politically controversial Common Core State Standards, teachers, parents and taxpayers are able to compare year-to-year results in most subjects and grades.

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment.

The results, along with other measures such as graduation rates, will determine the quality ratings of schools and districts. Those ratings will be released later this fall. For some schools, another round of poor results could mean state intervention — something that has never happened before.

Like last year, anti-testing sentiment ran highest in Boulder and wealthier suburban Denver enclaves, as well as in some rural districts. Older students were more likely to not take the tests while the overwhelming majority of younger students took them, also echoing last year’s trends.

At Boulder’s Fairview High School, just 72 of 514 ninth graders took the PARCC English test.

Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s director of assessments, said lower participation rates invite scrutiny.

“When I’m looking at a school with a high number of kids who met or exceeded expectations, with 98 percent participation, the confidence I can have in those results is higher than at a school with an even higher number of students who met or exceed expectations but had only 40 percent participation,” Zurkowski said.

The big five

Results from the state’s five largest school districts mostly mirrored statewide results, which most notably showed gains in elementary school math.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, showed gains in all but one test. The district only lost ground in the percentage of students who met or exceeded the state’s benchmarks in seventh grade math, dropping by 2.6 percentage points. The district’s largest leap in the percentage of students who cleared the state’s benchmarks was in fourth grade English, with a jump of 5.5 percentage points.

“A decade ago, we were 25 points behind the rest of the state,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “Now we’re about 3 or 4 points behind the rest of the state. Against that benchmark, we’ve made very consistent, very striking progress.”

Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district, saw gains in math in every grade but sixth. But it lost ground across the board on the state’s English tests. Its largest drop, 6.4 percentage points, was in the ninth grade.

“We are pleased to be improving in math given the higher level expectations of the CMAS/PARCC assessments,” Superintendent Dan McMinimee said in a statement. “Reading will continue to be a focus for our district improvement planning and we won’t be satisfied until all of our students are meeting or exceeding state expectations.”

The state’s third largest school district, Douglas County, made gains in math at the elementary school level, but lost ground in middle and high school. The south-suburban school district had wild swings on the English test. Ninth graders gained 5.7 points on that test, but seventh graders lost 7 points.

Strong gains in math were made in Cherry Creek elementary schools. But sixth graders this year lost 4 percentage points. The state’s fourth largest school district had more mixed results on the English test. There was a 2.8 percentage point increase in the number of fourth graders who were at grade level in English. But there was a 2.3 percentage point drop at the eighth grade level.

Julie Skupa, Cherry Creek’s assistant superintendent of assessment and improvement, said the district could attribute its higher math scores in part to a new curriculum.

“It goes beyond knowledge and rote memorization, and requires students to do a lot of problem-solving,” she said.

Aurora Public Schools, the fifth largest school district, saw mostly improvements. Students made gains in every grade on the English test except for grades six and eight. Similarly, Aurora showed increases in the number of students who met state expectations on the math test in every grade except for sixth and seventh.

“We’re seeing the first overall increase in performance since the 2011 school year,” said Superintendent Rico Munn, who has been leading an aggressive school improvement agenda. “We hope we can attribute that to our increase in rigor and relevance, our effort to make sure we have a high-quality teaching staff, and focus on our strategic plan.”

Growing pains

Changes made to Colorado’s testing system during the 2015 legislative session — including who takes the tests and how they take the tests — complicated this year’s release. School leaders voiced their frustration over slow-to-be-released and incomplete data that in some cases can’t be used to make comparisons to last year’s results.

For starters, this year’s upper division math results can’t be compared to last year’s because different grade levels took those tests. In 2015, middle school and high school students were eligible to take the state’s most advanced math tests. However, after lawmakers eliminated testing in the 10th and 11th grades, only seventh through ninth graders were able to take those tests.

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014.
PHOTO: Nic Garcia
Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014.

The upshot: you can’t compare results between the two years.

And for the second year in a row, Colorado has released results from its tests piecemeal. While schools are getting their results three months earlier than they did last year, the results are still slower than anyone expected.

“What they promised was that through the online system, we’d get results back sooner than later,” Skupa said, adding that it’s difficult for districts to make any meaningful changes after the school year has started. “It’s these bits and pieces that make it difficult to create a big picture view.”

Part of the slowdown this year, Zurkowski said, is that school districts were allowed to use pencil-and-paper tests on a much larger scale. But that’s only part of the problem, she said.

“I believe the PARCC consortium underestimated the complexity of scoring and reporting their assessments, especially in the first few years,” she said. “I do believe that not only Colorado but the PARCC consortium is committed to continue to find ways to improve that turnaround time.”

Paper-and-pencil tests are causing another set of concerns for the state. Last year, the state acknowledged that students who used paper tests performed better than they would have if they used online tests. Test that were impacted included the third grade English test and upper division high school math tests.

Zurkowski said that while the department has theories as to why the bump happened — students could have felt more comfortable writing out equations than keyboarding them — it doesn’t know for certain.

“There was a lot to sort through,” she said. “… Honestly, we don’t know what specifically the issue is.”

To ensure that didn’t happen this year, the state education department ran results from about 16 schools that used paper tests through a series of mathematical procedures ensuring students would get the same score whether they took the test on paper or online, Zurkowski said.

The additional steps make the results more reliable, Zurkowski said, but the department is still urging caution when it comes to looking at those schools.

“We’re not going to over-interpret at this point,” she said.

Search for your school

Use Chalkbeat’s database to search for your school’s individual results on the math and English tests. The green bar represents the number of students who met or exceeded the standards. The yellow bar represents the number of students who took the tests. State officials have cautioned that low participation rates could skew results.

rules and regs

State shortens length of ‘gag order’ on teachers discussing Regents questions online

PHOTO: G. Tatter

After pushback from teachers, the State Education Department has changed a new provision that temporarily prohibits teachers from discussing Regents exam questions online.

The original rule stated that teachers could not use email or a listserv to discuss test questions or other specific content with other teachers until a week after the exam period ended on June 23. As Chalkbeat reported Tuesday, teachers objected, arguing that they sometimes needed to discuss questions in order to properly grade the tests or to challenge questions that seems unfair.

Under the change, tests taken between June 13 and June 16 can be discussed online beginning June 23. And for those taken between June 19 and June 22, teachers can discuss content online beginning June 27.

According to education department officials, the provision was intended to ensure that testing material did not spread online before all students had completed their exams, particularly among schools that serve students with special needs, who qualify for multiple-day testing.

“We believe that nearly all students who are testing with this accommodation will have completed their exams by these dates,” Steven Katz, director of the Office of State Assessment, wrote in a memo to school principals and leaders.

Still, longtime physics teacher Gene Gordon and former president of the Science Teachers Association of New York State noted that, to some extent, the damage was done since the amendment to the rule came out only after many teachers had already graded their exams.

“It did not have any real effect,” Gordon said.

The New York State United Teachers — which criticized the new provision on Tuesday as a “gag order” and called for its repeal — called the amendment a “clear victory” for educators. Still, NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn told Chalkbeat, “it clearly will be more helpful in the future than this year.”

Testing Testing

Calculator mix-up could force some students to retake ISTEP, and Pearson is partially to blame

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

ISTEP scores for thousands of students across the state will be thrown out this year, including at two Indianapolis private schools, according to state officials.

The mishap can be traced back to calculators. Students at 20 schools used calculators on a section of the 2017 ISTEP math test when they shouldn’t have — in at least one district because of incorrect instructions from Pearson, the company that administers the tests in Indiana.

It’s a small glitch compared to the massive testing issues Indiana experienced with its previous testing company, CTB McGraw Hill. But years of problems have put teachers, students and parents on high alert for even minor hiccups. In 2013, for example, about 78,000 students had their computers malfunction during testing. Pearson began administering ISTEP in 2016.

The calculator mix-up involving Pearson happened in Rochester Community Schools, located about two hours north of Indianapolis. About 700 students in three schools received the incorrect instructions.

Molly Deuberry, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said that Rochester is the only district known to have received the incorrect instructions, but the state is also investigating calculator-related problems at 19 other schools.

According to federal rules, students who use calculators on non-calculator test sections must have their scores labeled as “undetermined.” Current sophomores will need to retake the test, since passing the 10th-grade exam is a graduation requirement in Indiana. Students will have multiple opportunities to do so, including during the summer, state officials said.

It’s not clear how the invalidated scores will affect those schools’ A-F letter grades. It is up to the Indiana State Board of Education to handle A-F grade appeals, which districts can request once grades are released.

“The Department and State Board will collaborate to ensure that the State Board receives sufficient detail about this incident when reviewing the appeals,” the education department said in an email.

Pearson spokesman Scott Overland said in an email that they would work with the education department to follow up on the calculator issues and correct their processes for next year.

“In some cases, Pearson inadvertently provided inaccurate or unclear guidance on the use of calculators during testing,” Overland said. “In these instances, we followed up quickly to help local school officials take corrective action.”

Here are the districts and schools the state says had students incorrectly use calculators on this year’s ISTEP:

  • Covington Christian School, Covington
  • Eastbrook South Elementary, Eastbrook Schools
  • Eastern Hancock Elementary School, Eastern Hancock County Schools
  • Emmanuel-St. Michael Lutheran School, Fort Wayne
  • Frankfort Middle School, Frankfort Community Schools
  • George M Riddle Elementary School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Lasalle Elementary School, School City of Mishawaka
  • New Haven Middle School, East Allen County Schools
  • Rochester Community Middle School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Rochester Community High School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Saint Boniface School, Lafayette
  • Saint Joseph High School, South Bend
  • Saint Roch Catholic School, Indianapolis
  • Silver Creek Middle School, West Clark Community Schools
  • St. Louis de Montfort School, Lafayette
  • Tennyson Elementary School, Warrick County Schools
  • Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, School City of Hammond
  • Trinity Christian School, Indianapolis
  • Waterloo Elementary School, DeKalb County Schools
  • Westfield Middle School, Westfield-Washington Schools

This story has been updated to include comments from Pearson.