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. 

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.