the more things change

Colorado third-grade reading scores dip slightly

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Third graders at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences work during class.

Fewer Colorado third graders are reading at or above grade level, according to preliminary results from the state’s standardized tests released today.

The state’s schools saw on average about a 1 point drop — from about 73 percentage points in 2013 to about 72 in 2014.

While many in the state yearn for a spike, the year’s proficiency rate is well within the historical range of the last decade, and the state did not say whether the 1 point drop represents a statistically significant change.

Given growing poverty levels among students and years of budget cuts, “I wouldn’t think that dropping by 1 point is anything we need to be up in arms about,” said Sarah Hughes, research director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “But we want to see consistent improvement.”

(See highlights from this year’s results.)

Still, those who pushed for recent changes in the way Colorado schools work with their youngest students, including the Campaign, say they remain eager to see long-term improvements.

“The data helps shines a light on a huge problem,” said Reilly Pharo, the Campaign’s vice president of education initiatives. “One out of almost every two kids who are low-income aren’t able to read proficiently. It’s just terrifying how we’re supporting kids in early in their education experiences.”

Whether a third grader is reading at or above grade level is  considered a predictor of success during their primary and secondary education careers, Hughes said. Research has shown a strong link between students’ reading skills in third grade and whether they ultimately graduate from high school.

The third-grade threshold is especially important because fourth grade is when schools ramp up their expectations for how students should apply their reading skills to other subjects such as math and science, Pharo said.

“If [a student hasn’t] mastered literacy by third grade, it will cause a ripple effect,” she said.

That concern is part of what has prompted Colorado lawmakers to enact a series of policies to reshape Colorado schools since 2008. Those policies including the adoption of new standards meant to boost what is expected of students and an early childhood literacy law, known as the READ Act, that requires extra help for struggling readers.

When the READ Act is fully rolled out next year, students with significant reading deficiencies should have been identified by a series of evaluation tools and placed on an individualized reading intervention plan that may included parent support, one-on-one work with a reading coach, and targeted grade-level group work.

(Find your school’s scores here.)

Schools across the state are at varying stages of adjusting to the new standards, which are supposed to be in full effect this year, and adopting the new reading interventions.

At Haskin Elementary School in the San Luis Valley, that work is mostly completed, said co-principal Sarah Vance. Since being identified as a turnaround school in 2010, Haskin has implemented both the new standards and several literacy programs like Lindamood-Bell.

“It’s amazing, when kids learn to read, math scores go up, writing scores go up, and science scores go up,” she said, pointing to the school’s growth in reading and math.

For Haskin, it’s now about identifying what’s working, sustaining that work, and fine-tuning, Vance said. The school’s third-grade literacy scores jumped six points this year but are still nearly 10 points lower than in 2011.

“We meet weekly and discuss the needs of our kids based on the standards,” Vance said. “We’re constantly evaluating results and discussing interventions.”

That kind of work is also starting to pay off in some Aurora Public Schools, according to a spokeswoman there. The district as a whole saw a 3-point proficiency rate drop, but some schools avoided the decline.

“Eleven of our schools had significant increases in proficient and advanced scores,” said the spokeswoman, Patti Moon, in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We will focus on helping more of our schools reach that same level of success. We are now looking at the TCAP third-grade data to determine what factors had an impact on schools with significant changes. We will be using this data to target student learning moving forward.”

But how effective the new standards and reading interventions programs are remains to be seen — and likely won’t be known for several years, said Pharo of the Children’s Campaign. That’s because Colorado will rollout a new standardized test next year to measure literacy rates and the state’s education department just finalized the list of reading assessments aligned to the READ Act.

“The next couple of years are critical,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting to look at how the [Colorado Department of Education] is going to allocate its resources. Hopefully we’ll see another $17 million to $20 million to literacy above per pupil funding next year. We’ll see if there are gains in those investments.”

Results from other grade levels and content areas assessed this spring will be released in August. Math, reading and writing are tested in third through 10th grades. Science is assessed in fifth and eighth grades. Social studies is assessed in fourth and seventh grades.

2014 highlights

  • Both students whose family incomes qualify them for free- or reduced-price lunch and those who don’t saw about a two-point dip.
  • Districts with between 300 and 600 students had the highest proficiency rates this year, at 80 percent. Districts with between 601 and 1,200 students had the fewest proficient readers, at 69 percent.
  • Female students did better than male students. About 75 percent of female students scored proficient or above while only 69 percent of males students are at grade level.
  • About 56 percent of both African-American and Hispanic students are at grade level, compared to 82 percent of white students.
  • Forty-six percent of students whose first language is Spanish scored proficient or above on the reading test while 77 percent of students whose first language is English did. About 65 percent of students whose first language was neither English nor Spanish scored proficient.

How individual school districts fared

Statewide, third-grade reading proficiency rates have hovered around the 70 percent range since 2003. More recently, proficiency scores have ranged from about 70 percent in 2010 to 74 percent in 2012.  But individual districts have posted larger gains and declines.

  • Denver Public Schools saw a one-point drop in its scores this year, bringing the district’s overall proficiency rate climb to 10 points over the last four years.
  • Aurora Public Schools saw a 3 point drop in reading proficiency this year. A little more than 46 percent of third graders are at or above grade level, the district’s lowest rate since 2009.
  • The Center Consolidated School District of the San Luis Valley in western Colorado saw about a six-point bump, to 67 percent of third graders reading at grade level or above. Just 27 percent of students in the small rural district scored proficient in 2010, but 75 percent did in 2012.
  • Jeffco Public Schools saw a one-point drop. About 79 percent of third graders are reading at grade level.
  • Slightly less than half of all third graders in the Montezuma-Cortez school district read proficiently on the state test this year. That means the district has had a 10-point drop since 2009.
  • In Pueblo, literacy rates continued to drop. This year 71 percent of third graders scored proficient or advance on the reading test. That’s a seven-point decline from 78 percent in 2009.

(See how your school did here.)

Update: This article has been updated to provide additional context regarding a quote attributed to Children’s Campaign researcher Sarah Hughes. It has also been updated to clarify Jeffco’s one point drop this year. 

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” said district spokeswoman Janelle Asmus. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, said Asmus. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.

moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.