CDE sees glimmers of hope in new testing system

Nobody at 201 E. Colfax Ave. was happy about 2014’s TCAP performance and growth stats, but Department of Education leaders do have some optimism about future results from the state’s new testing system – if schools fully implement new academic content standards and integrate them into classrooms.

The final set of TCAP results showed slight declines in percentages of students performing proficient or advanced on reading, writing and math tests. (See this story for full details, and search our database for results from districts and schools of interest to you.)

“It disturbs us all,” education Commissioner Robert Hammond said of the results in a presentation to the State Board of Education. But he added, “If we stay the course students will succeed at greater and greater rates. … We’re seeing it in some districts – we’re really seeing some improvement.” (Meanwhile, the board took a different tack in its TCAP post-mortum – see story.)

Hammond and other CDE officials said the key to future improvement in test scores is full integration of classroom instruction with state academic content standards, a process that’s still unfolding in many districts.

“If instruction is not happening in the classroom, we are not going to go anywhere,” Hammond said.

Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley and Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen both said CDE’s top priority in the coming year is to help districts full integrate the standards into classrooms.

In a later conversation with Chalkbeat Colorado, officials repeated that point. State officials believe that the standards are superior to the ones that preceded them.

“It’s very clear what the expectations are at every grade level,” said Melissa Colsman, executive director of the achievement and strategy division. (It’s also a widely held view that some districts didn’t pay much attention to the old standards.)

If districts successfully upgrade instruction, “long term we’re going to see improvement,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment. “Within a couple of years we should see movement in scores,”

(Department officials have repeatedly noted that the percentage of students in the top two proficiency levels will drop on the first year of new tests, compared to those percentages for the TCAPs. That traditionally happens with new assessments because the old and new tests are different and assess different things. See this story for an indication of what might happen in Colorado.)

Owen and others noted that Colorado’s biggest challenge probably isn’t overall performance levels or low-performing individual schools but the significant achievement gaps between ethnic and income groups. “There is a larger problem across the state when it comes to performance and these achievement gaps.”

Hawley and Elliott Asp, special assistant to the commissioner, also noted significant enrollment growth and demographic change over the last decade, a period that spans the TCAPs and a significant portion of the CSAP era.

Asp told the board that since 2004 enrollment has grown by 119,331 (16 percent), the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch has jumped by 139,074 (61 percent) and enrollment of English language learners is up 34,999 students (38 percent).

The education system has been “able to accommodate change and population growth” without scores dropping,” Hawley said. “But it’s not good enough.”

What parents should know

Release of the TCAP results prompted the usual flurry of news releases from districts and schools, spinning the results in ways intended to put the best face on things.

Chalkbeat asked the CDE execs what advice they have for parents who are trying to interpret results.

Hawley said to look at whether students in a particular school and grade are growing, and Asp said to check on whether growth rates are above state average.

Hawley suggested parents ask principals about how a school’s teachers are being trained in the new standards and how to use them.

And communications director Janelle Asmus said parents always should ask what they can do to improve the performance of their children.