Most Colorado students not proficient in reading and math — but there’s some good news

More than half of Colorado students in grades three through eight didn’t meet grade-level expectations in reading, writing, or math on state tests they took this past spring, and glaring disparities based on income and race remain essentially unchanged.

The 2019 Colorado test results released Thursday paint a student performance picture that is substantially similar to past years. In literacy, 45.8% of students met or exceeded expectations on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, a modified version of the PARCC test given to students in third through eighth grade. That’s 1.3 percentage points higher than last year. In math, 34.7% of students did so, roughly the same percentage as last year.

However, state education officials see a few promising trend lines in the 2019 Colorado test results, including in the state’s literacy scores, which have edged up every year since this more rigorous CMAS test was first administered in 2015.

In 2019, 41.3% of third-graders met or exceeded expectations on state tests on English language arts, compared with 38% in 2015, and 48% of fifth-graders did so, compared with 41% in 2015.

Colorado test results in math are more mixed, with third-graders making gains since 2015 but fewer sixth-graders — just 30% in 2019 compared with 32% in 2015 — meeting or exceeding expectations.

In a call with reporters, Joyce Zurkowski, Colorado’s chief assessment officer, said she considers the literacy gains, made every year at every grade level, to be “real,” even if much smaller than anyone would like.

“When we’re looking at (English language arts), we’re definitely seeing a trend of improved achievement across all the grade levels, and that is good news,” she said. “We would like to see gains be made more quickly, and for our gaps to show narrowing.”

Across tests and grade levels, there’s a gap of roughly 30 percentage points between students who qualify for subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty, and students from middle- and upper-class families. There are similar gaps based on race and ethnicity. For example, 60.1 percent of white fifth-graders met or exceeded expectations on literacy tests, compared with 31.6 percent of black students and 31.5 percent of Hispanic fifth-graders.

Students with disabilities have the largest gaps.

“It is gratifying to see such accomplishments in the performance of so many students across the state, but it is still difficult to see large groups of students who are not advancing as they should,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release on the results.

Anthes said closing these gaps would continue to be a top priority, even as she noted that Colorado is hardly unique in struggling to raise test scores and reduce disparities, despite more than a decade of education reform policies, including expanded school choice and availability of charter schools, teacher effectiveness requirements, and an accountability system that allows for intervention in low-performing schools, including closure. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” have also been relatively flat over the last decade.

Student growth

Across districts and schools, there are strong correlations between student demographics and CMAS performance. In addition to achievement or proficiency, Colorado calculates growth scores that show how much progress students have made compared with students who had similar scores the year before. This score is generally seen as a better measure of how good a job schools are doing and contributes to school and district ratings that will be released later this fall. There is increasing concern, however, among some policymakers and advocates that even students with high growth scores won’t catch up in time to have the necessary knowledge and skills when they graduate high school to go on to college or good jobs.

Because growth is calculated relative to other students, the state average is always around 50 on a 100-point scale. Racial and income disparities also appear in growth scores, though they are less dramatic. In 2019, fourth- through eighth-grade students in poverty had average growth scores of 47 in literacy and math and students of color had average growth scores of 48, while white students and more affluent ones had growth scores in the low 50s.

English language learners have similar growth scores to the state average, while students with disabilities have the lowest growth scores — 43 in literacy and 44 in math.

These gaps are significant because students who score lower on state assessments need to make more growth to catch up.

Low-income students in Denver do better than the state average, but the district, the largest in the state, also has some of the largest gaps in growth scores in the metro area. Better-off students had growth scores above 60 while those in poverty were around 50. But in Denver and a number of other metro area districts, including Jeffco, Adams 12, Littleton, Boulder Valley, and Englewood, these gaps have narrowed slightly in recent years.

The tiny Sheridan district, where a quarter of students are homeless and the vast majority live in poverty, boosted its math growth scores for low-income students to 54.

Similarly, black and Hispanic students in Denver had higher growth scores than the state average for students of color, but they lagged 12 to 14 points behind their white counterparts. The largest racial gap in the metro area was in Douglas County, where black students make up less than 2 percent of the student population and have math growth scores 17 points lower than their white counterpoints.

SAT scores

Starting in 2017, Colorado has given high school students the SAT instead of state assessments in an effort to increase participation rates in a state that had become a center of the “opt-out” movement, in which students refused to take standardized tests as an act of protest.

That shift has been largely successful, with 92.6% percent of 11th graders taking the SAT this spring. The statewide average composite score this year was 1001, down slightly from 1014 in 2017 but still above the national average of 973.

This year more than half of all high schools in the state recorded lower SAT test scores when compared with last year. The decreases come as more students are taking the test, once reserved for students intending to go to college.

Data for about a quarter of high schools is suppressed due to the state’s data privacy rules. Among those schools that did show an increase in their student test scores were several charter schools and the Denver Center for International Studies.

Third grade reading

Just 26 out of 178 Colorado districts have more than half of their third-graders reading at grade level. They are mostly tiny rural districts serving small numbers of students and districts that serve mostly students from middle- and upper-class families, such as Douglas County, Littleton, and Boulder Valley, along with Steamboat Springs, the Poudre district in Fort Collins, and Academy 20 and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs.

In Denver, just 39.4% of third-graders met or exceeded grade-level literacy expectations on the CMAS, up 1.6 percentage points from last year. In Jefferson County to the west, it was 46.3%, slightly down from last year. In Aurora, which serves one of the most diverse student bodies in the state, it was 22.8%, up 1.5 percentage points.

In the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district, third-graders made 6 percentage points’ progress from 2018, but that still left just 22% of students meeting or exceeding expectations. The district serves the highest percentage of English language learners in the state. Last year, the State Board of Education ordered an external manager to take over day-to-day operations after years of low performance.

Incremental progress on literacy scores comes amid a national and state debate over how schools teach reading. Under Colorado’s 2012 READ Act, the state has invested more than $230 million in extra help for young struggling readers, but the number of students identified as having a significant reading deficiency has actually gone up slightly. This apparent lack of progress caused significant concern among advocates, policymakers, and parents.

Legislation passed earlier this year requires additional training for teachers and more accountability for how districts spend READ Act dollars. Many districts that had previously used this money to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten should have more money available starting this year to give more attention specifically to struggling readers.

But state education officials said the steady progress on state assessments indicates existing efforts are having some impact.

“Our teachers are becoming more familiar with the standards and expectations at each grade level,” said Floyd Cobb, executive director of teaching and learning for the state education department. “Beyond that, there has been a tremendous focus on early literacy.”

Chalkbeat reporters Ann Schimke and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting. Sam Park did the graphics.

Correction: This story has been updated to properly attribute a quote.