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. 


After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”

course count

In New York, students of color lack access to advanced coursework, new analysis finds

PHOTO: Emilija Manevska
Student writing on blackboard

If a student lived in a suburban, wealthy school district in New York state last year, her chances of attending a school with six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate were greater than 90 percent.

In New York City – where students are far more likely to be black and Hispanic – a student’s chances of accessing such a rich curriculum plummeted to 18 percent.

That is just one example of how New York’s black and Latino students are denied access to advanced coursework, including math, science, music, and foreign language classes, according to a new analysis of 2017 data released by the New York Equity Coalition, a group of about 20 civic organizations. The lack of access cripples students trying to prepare for college and denies them the chance to take rigorous coursework, the report’s authors argue.

“It should be cause for alarm and action,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-NY, which is part of the coalition and conducted the analysis. “We see this question of access to rich and robust coursework as being essential for New York students.”

In New York City, officials have acknowledged many students of color lack access to advanced courses — and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight it. The city has announced initiatives aimed at expanding middle school algebra courses, Advanced Placement classes in high school, and computer science education.

But Education Trust-NY’s new analysis sheds light on the depth of the problem facing the city. It also suggests that simply adding classes will not be enough to enroll more black and Latino students in advanced coursework, since these students are often under-enrolled in these courses even when they are offered at their schools.

The analysis looked at “gatekeeper” courses, which authors say either provide a springboard to higher-level courses or allow students to develop important skills or passions. The courses include middle school algebra and earth science, calculus, physics, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, computer science, advanced foreign language, and music.

Across the board, Education Trust-NY found that students of color in New York state are under-enrolled in these courses compared to their white and Asian peers. For instance, for every 100 New York high school students, about 15 white students and 20 Asian took physics, while only around seven black or Latino students did the same.

The analysis finds two reasons for the lack of enrollment among New York’s black and Latino students. The first is that students of color are more likely to attend schools that do not offer these courses. That problem was particularly acute in the state’s urban centers, including New York City, which enroll a greater share of the state’s black and Hispanic students than other areas in the state.

For instance, the share of New York City schools that offered algebra in middle school and physics, calculus, music, and advanced foreign language in high school was more than 20 percentage points lower than the state average in each case.

Secondly, even if advanced courses are offered in schools, black and Latino students may not enroll in the classes, the analysis finds. For instance, in New York City, 56 percent of students in schools offering calculus last year were Latino or black, while only 35 percent of student enrolled in calculus were Latino or black.

The city is working hard to combat both of these problems, officials say. Since the mayor unveiled his “Equity and Excellence” agenda in 2015, 152 high schools are offering new Advanced Placement courses, teachers have been trained across 550 schools to offer computer science classes, and teachers across 357 elementary schools have received training in the city’s initiative to boost algebra participation.

Additionally, since the 2017 school year, which is the year used in Ed Trust-NY’s analysis, 89 more schools in New York City offer additional Advanced Placement classes, according to city officials. However, it is unclear exactly how many new schools are offering algebra in middle school or computer science classes, they said.

The city also instituted a Lead Higher initiative, aimed at reducing disparities in enrollment among underserved students at schools that already have AP classes.

However, there are some aspects of the city school system that might work against offering more advanced classes in every school. The previous administration split many large, comprehensive high schools into smaller schools. Since smaller schools may lack the teaching capacity or number of students to justify a wide range of courses, students’ options may be limited.

New York City’s high school system is also extremely stratified by academic achievement. Top schools are allowed to select the city’s high-performing students, while the remaining schools have few students who can complete grade-level work in English and math. As a result, those schools – which disproportionately serve students of color – may lack advanced classes.

Critics may say that the lack of advanced classes is a symptom of a bigger problem: That many black and Latino students have not been prepared for more advanced coursework in their elementary and middle schools. Rosenblum said that may be true in some cases, but there are also many students who are prepared to succeed in advanced classes but are not given the opportunity.

“The research is really clear that vastly more students can succeed in higher-level and advanced courses than are currently in them,” Rosenblum said, adding, “If we want students to be prepared for rigorous courses in high school, we need more rigorous courses to prepare them.”

The analysis also points to another reason that student of color may not be encouraged to pursue advanced coursework: a lack of guidance counselors. Eight percent of black and Latino students attend a middle school without a guidance counselor, which is double the rate of their white peers. In high school, about 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools where there are more than 250 students for every guidance counselor, whereas 27 percent of their white peers do the same.

Rosenblum and others at the New York Equity Coalition have posited several solutions to the problems outlined in their analysis. One suggestion would have students default to a more advanced set of courses that begins with taking algebra in middle school. In this scenario, parents would have to sign a waiver to opt students out of this more challenging path.

Solutions like this have the potential to appeal to those with dueling educational philosophies. On the one hand, it could appeal to those who have been calling for higher educational standards – since it would encourage more advanced coursework. On the other, it does not rely on test scores to achieve those higher standards.

This debate has bubbled to the surface recently in a conversation about New York’s Regents exams, which students typically must pass before graduating. Some argue the tests help make graduation requirements more rigorous, while others say they are a poor way to ensure more students are prepared for college.

State policymakers have signaled they are interested in rethinking graduation requirements and have already carved out exceptions for some students that stray from the traditional path of passing five Regents exams. But they have not yet coupled it with a way to ensure that students remain focused on advanced classes, raising concerns from advocates that they have been dropping standards.

Further, a wide range of politicians and policymakers have called for increased access to rich coursework, including officials at the state education department, de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary rival Cynthia Nixon.