Colorado third graders did almost as well on standardized tests this past spring as third graders did before the pandemic, an encouraging sign after three disrupted school years.
But older students in most grades and subjects did worse, even as test scores rebounded from very low levels in 2021. And the majority of Colorado students didn’t meet grade-level expectations on the tests, known as Colorado Measures of Academic Success or CMAS, just as they didn’t before COVID.
That’s not the return to normal education leaders or parents want to see, and state and district officials emphasized the work that remains even as they noted some bright spots.
“We celebrate the fact that student scores were better in most cases than they were in 2021, but we continue to face the challenge of fully bringing kids back to the levels they were before the disruptions of the pandemic, as well as closing the historic opportunity and achievement gaps,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release.
Wide gaps remain between Black and Hispanic students and those from low-income households, on one hand, and their better-off white and Asian peers on the other. Where test score gaps narrowed, it was generally because students who historically performed better instead performed worse.
“That is not how we want to see the gap decrease. We want to see both groups increasing in terms of achievement, with our historically lower-achieving group improving at a faster pace,” said Joyce Zurkowski, Colorado’s chief assessment officer.
Nearly 41% of Colorado third graders met or exceeded grade-level expectations in literacy, almost as high as the 41.3% who did so in 2019. Colorado is in the midst of a multiyear effort to improve reading instruction. Reading well by the end of third grade positions students for future academic success.
Zurkowski said the reading rebound was “a piece of really good news” for students whose schools closed before they could finish first grade.
Less encouraging were results for older students. Just a quarter of seventh graders met or exceeded expectations in math compared with 31.6% in 2019. And less than a third of eight graders met benchmarks in math, compared with almost 37% in 2019. Ninth graders showed the biggest decline. Only 40% of ninth graders met or exceeded expectations in math, compared with almost 50% in 2019, a drop of 8.8 percentage points.
Literacy scores for older students were also lower than 2019 in most grades.
Colorado results released Wednesday align with some national test results and standardized tests from other states that show older students struggling more than younger ones do, and math scores taking a greater hit than literacy.
Colorado administers CMAS tests in literacy and math every spring in grades 3 through 8. Schools also give tests in science and social studies but far fewer students take the tests. High school students take the PSAT and SAT.
This was the first year Colorado gave the full suite of tests since 2019. Testing was canceled in 2020, and in 2021, many students took either math or literacy tests based on their grade level, rather than both tests. Participation also plummeted, making comparisons hard. Nonetheless, students did far worse in 2021 than in 2019, with the exception of 11th grade, where students posted higher SAT scores.
Participation was largely back to normal this year, though some student groups took the test at lower rates. Participation was particularly low for Black students in middle school, for students with disabilities, and for English language learners.
The state uses standardized tests results to rate schools and districts and to target help to schools with lower performance. State officials may consider low scores in deciding next steps for schools under existing state improvement orders, but schools won’t be subjected to new interventions based on this year’s results. Colorado’s school accountability system is set to fully resume next year.
Parents, meanwhile, will get their children’s CMAS results from their districts and can use them to talk with teachers about their students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Colorado has expanded state money available for school improvement, and in recent years, schools also have federal money for intensive tutoring to catch students up.
Jeffco Public Schools is among the districts investing in that approach. Chief of Schools David Weiss hopes that by October, tutors will be meeting several times a week with students who need the most help. The district is also rolling out new curriculum in elementary reading and secondary math and providing teachers with more training and more opportunity for collaboration.
“We outscored the state in just about every category, both in growth and achievement, and we’re encouraged by that,” Weiss said. “That being said, there’s still a lot of room for growth, and we definitely have work to do as a district getting back to some of those best practices that we know are great for kids.”
Weiss said academic gains and losses are just one piece of pandemic recovery.
“There are other things that our students gained through this experience and there are other things that they lost,” he said. “Our students lost family members, they lost the social time that they had with their friends. On the flip side, some families grew closer. I don’t think it’s appropriate to minimize all the different things that our communities could have learned and experienced over the last few years to just the math and reading scores.”
Wide test score gaps remain
Schools did not close large test score gaps between students from low-income families and those from wealthier families, or between white students and Black and Hispanic students.
For example, less than a quarter of Colorado students who qualify for subsidized school meals met or exceeded expectations on CMAS literacy tests, compared with more than half of students who don’t qualify. The gap was nearly 30 percentage points. The gaps between white students and Black and Hispanic students were nearly as large, at 27 and 29 percentage points respectively.
Denver Public Schools, which is Colorado’s largest school district at about 90,000 students, has even larger gaps by race: 72% of white students met expectations on state literacy tests, while 26% of Black students and 24% of Hispanic students did. That’s approaching a 50 percentage-point gap in a district that has for years been focused on equity.
Of the five largest school districts in Colorado, Denver has the largest CMAS test score gaps separating white students from Black and Hispanic students in both literacy and math.
On the whole, Denver’s CMAS scores rebounded from last year, though not to pre-pandemic levels. The one positive exception was third-grade reading, where the percentage of students meeting expectations — 39.9% — was slightly higher than in 2019.
On the PSAT and SAT, however, Denver’s scores were lower than in 2019 or 2021. Students struggled the most in math. Just 29% of 11th graders met expectations on the math SAT.
Chalkbeat also looked at the CMAS scores in 10 school districts with the highest percentages of students of color and more than 1,000 students total. In those districts, scores were mixed.
Some rebounded, such as the fourth-grade math scores in Aurora, which were higher than last year but still not as high as in 2019. Others, such as the sixth-grade math scores in Mapleton, decreased from 2019. And some scores increased. More third graders in Sheridan met or exceeded expectations on the literacy test this year than in either 2019 or 2021.
Growth scores in the 10 districts were also mixed. Those scores measure how much progress students made compared with students who had similar scores the year before. Because growth is relative, the state average is always around 50 on a 100-point scale. Students who are below grade level need growth scores above 50 to make progress at a faster pace.
Growth scores in the 10 districts ranged from as low as 16.5 in elementary school math in the East Otero district in southeast Colorado to as high as 56 in elementary school reading in the Harrison district in Colorado Springs and 58 in elementary school math in Denver.
Adams 14, which faces the possibility of losing control of its schools due to its years of low performance, posted worsening test scores in the spring.
The district’s growth scores show most students are not making enough progress. One bright spot was for middle school math, where students made more than a year’s worth of progress.
The only area where Adams 14 had more students at grade level or above than in 2019 was sixth grade math. But the percentages are still tiny. On that test, 5.3% of students met or exceeded expectations, up from 4.2% who did in 2019. In math, achievement rates for most grade levels in Adams 14 are in the single digits.
In English, all Adams 14 scores were worse than in 2019, with fifth grade scores dropping the most, and seventh graders having the lowest rate of meeting or exceeding expectations.
Students struggle more in math
Statewide, nearly 29% of students who took CMAS math tests met or exceeded expectations. That’s lower than in 2019, when almost 33% did.
Many educators believe students ended up reading more during periods of virtual learning — not necessarily novels, but text messages with friends, social media posts, and all the material posted online for their classes. Parents are also more likely to support literacy at home, reading to their kids and encouraging their kids to read.
Many parents aren’t sure how to help their children with math, especially as it gets more complex. Teachers also reported that loss of classroom instruction time made it harder to spot when students were confused. And teachers differed in how they approached missing skills.
Marty Gutierrez teaches middle school math in Adams 12 Five Star Schools in the north Denver suburbs. He noticed that many students started last school year without mastery of skills from the previous year. The pandemic meant less hands-on learning, less practice, and less interaction among students, who might explain something to a peer in a new way, bringing that student along while reinforcing their own understanding.
“A lot of my students struggled with basic math facts, 7 x 8. I think the pandemic affected the way we taught those things and people went about addressing them in different ways,” Gutierrez said. “Some people went back and said we’re going to work on this, work on this, work on this. But then they missed out on what seventh and eighth grade was supposed to be about.
“My approach was, OK, if the kid struggles with math facts, give them a calculator and let’s work on those concepts. In seventh and eighth grade, we learn a lot of concepts.”
Even in math, there were some positive signs. When education officials examined student growth scores from the 2019 baseline, they found students making more progress in math, even where test scores remain low. That indicates some students are making up lost ground.
Reading scores show both promise and trouble
While the percentage of third graders performing at grade level on state literacy tests rebounded, Zurkowski noted a concerning trend among the good news: the percentage of third-graders reading far below grade level is going up.
This past spring, 22.1% scored in the “has not yet met expectations” band on the literacy test, the lowest of five bands. That’s more third-graders reading far below grade level than in any year since 2016, when 19% of third-graders scored “has not yet met.” The same was true for some other grades and subjects too.
Fifth graders, meanwhile, continued the drop that began last year. In 2021, about 47% of fifth grade students were proficient on literacy tests, about 1 percentage point lower than pre-pandemic levels. This year, the fifth-grade proficiency rate declined to about 45%.
Krista Spurgin, executive director of the advocacy group Stand for Children Colorado, suggested that the state’s ongoing focus on improving early elementary reading instruction may be paying off in the form of rebounding third grade literacy scores.
But there has been no similar set of policies aimed at older students who can’t read well.
“We have heard from so many educators and parents over the last few years that report their older students are struggling to read — fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders that need supports their teachers are understandably not equipped to give them,” she said by email.
See full state results from the Colorado Department of Education here.
Ann Schimke and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at email@example.com.
Correction: This article has been changed to reflect that last school year’s third grade students were in first grade in March 2020, not kindergarten.