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.

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.