Short TCAP testing era ends on flat note

Photo illustration

The three-year run of the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests has ended with 2014 statewide student proficiency levels little changed from when the test was introduced.

Results from tests given in spring 2014 in grades three through 10 showed 68.9 percent of the state’s students were reading at proficient or advanced levels. Some 56.4 percent were proficient or above in math, and 54.3 percent of students were proficient or above in writing.

The state’s overall results from this year were within one percentage point of last year’s numbers in all three subject areas.

At the state level, no grade moved more than 3 percent from last year. With a few exceptions, almost every grade level declined in almost all subject areas. Those exceptions were slight increases in fifth and seventh grade reading, 3rd and 8th grade writing and 8th and 9th grade math.

As has been the pattern with statewide testing results for several years, there are significant achievement gaps among ethnic groups, and overall proficiency levels tend to drop as students get older.

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Multiple years of test results are used to calculate student academic growth, which the Department of Education uses to classify students as catching up, keeping up or moving up in their growth toward proficiency. Those results are also in roughly the range reported for 2013.

The final major piece of the annual state testing report is results of the ACT test, which is taken by all high school juniors regardless of whether they’re going to college.

The average ACT composite score increased to 20.4 (out of a possible 36) this year, just a third of a point higher than last year’s average. Average scores on the English, reading and science reasoning sections of the test also increased very slightly, while the average math score was unchanged.

State tests date back to 1997

This year’s TCAP results, released Thursday, mark the end of an era for statewide standardized testing, which began in 1997 with administration of the first Colorado Student Assessment Program reading and writing tests to fourth graders. Reading tests for third graders were added in 1998, and the system was expanded gradually. It wasn’t until 2006 that reading, math and writing tests were given to all students in grades 3-10. (Click here for details about CSAP/TCAP tests in two other subjects.)

CSAP tests ended in 2011 after new state content standards were adopted, and the TCAPs were intended to bridge the gap until new tests could be developed that would be fully aligned with the new standards. (Get more background here from the state education department on TCAPs.)

A 2011 analysis of CSAP scores by I-News and Chalkbeat Colorado found that fourth-grade proficient and advanced levels in reading increased by 10 percentage points, from 55 to 65 percent, over the 15-year run of the CSAPs.

But that analysis also found that almost all the reading gains came in the first 10 years of testing, with most districts either stagnating or falling slightly since 2006. (See this story for details on the last year of CSAP testing.)

In the last year of CSAP, 68 percent of all students were proficient or advanced in reading, with 56 percent in math and 55 percent in writing. Those figures are within two percentage points of those reported during the three years of TCAP.

Colorado education has undergone major changes since 1997, including implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind law, changing accountability requirements, periodic funding crises and implementation of new standards. There also have been important changes in student demographics, most notably a sharp increase in the proportion of students who are Hispanic, and a corresponding drop in white students.  In 1997 71.3 percent of students were white and 19.3 percent Hispanic. Last year the percentages were 55 and 32.8 percent. The percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has risen from 34.3 percent in 2006 (the year the full testing system was rolled out) to 42.2 percent in 2013-14.

Third generation of tests is coming

The testing system
  • New online science tests were given in grades 5 and 8 last spring
  • The first social studies tests, also online, were given in grades 4 and 7
  • Science and social studies tests will be given in 12th grade this fall
  • New online CMAS language arts and math tests roll out next spring. Tests start in 3rd grade, and 11th grade tests are being added
  • There will be two sets of language arts and math tests, one in early spring and one near the end of the school year
  • Schools administer annual literacy assessments in grades K-3 under the READ Act
  • Districts are phasing in school readiness assessments required by the CAP4K law

Colorado’s next set of tests – named Colorado Measures of Academic Success – are headed to state classrooms next spring. The math and language arts tests (combining reading and writing) will be the multi-state online assessments developed by the Pearson company for the PARCC testing consortium, and those tests will be based on the controversial Common Core State Standards.

While PARCC test results won’t be available until late 2015 or possibly early 2016, state education officials have been warning for months that proficiency percentages will drop, as usually happens after states launch brand-new tests. Scores have dropped in several states that already have rolled out new tests. (See this story about projected science and social studies test results for a preview of what’s likely to happen.)

Stagnant or falling test scores always spark contentious debate among educators and interest groups about the cause – whether misdirected reforms, an underfunded K-12 system, ineffective classroom instruction, meaningless tests or the challenges posed by at-risk students, or some combination of factors are to blame.

The perceived burden of testing also has become a growing issue. A state task force assigned to investigate that and other testing issues is starting its work and will make recommendations to the 2015 legislature. (Get more background on the Colorado testing debate here and here in the Chalkbeat archives.)

Highlights from 2014 TCAP results


CDE uses growth data to classify students as catching up, keeping up or moving up in their growth toward proficiency. Those results also in roughly the range reported for 2013. (See detailed explanations of those categories here.) Here’s what those results looked like:

  • Reading: 30.9 percent catch-up, 80.7 percent keep-up and 13.7 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 32.1 percent, 81.5 percent and 14.9 percent.)
  • Math: 11.2 percent catch-up, 62.4 percent keep up and 16.5 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 12.4 percent, 63.4 percent and 18.6 percent.)
  • Writing: 26 percent catch-up, 72.4 percent keep-up and 18.1 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 27.8 percent, 74.2 percent and 18.9 percent.)

At the state level, students were most likely to move up, keep up or catch up in reading. Students were least likely to move up, keep up, or catch up in math.

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 growth results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Proficiency: Districts & Schools

The 10 largest enrollment districts mirrored the statewide pattern of modest fluctuations in percentages of students scoring proficient or advanced.

At the state level, scores in every grade fluctuated less than 3 percent from last year. With a few exceptions, proficiency for almost every grade level declined in almost all subjects. The exceptions were 8th and 9th grade math and 5th and 7th grade writing.

Growth: Districts & Schools

All the highest growth districts in the state were rural: Liberty, Edison 54, Ouray, Summit, Silverton, Kim Reorganized and Gilpin County. One of the districts with the highest average growth across subjects was Vilas, one of two districts facing the end of the state’s accountability clock.

The state’s lowest-growth districts or entities were also small — Aguilar, Hanover, West End, Las Animas and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.

Two of the five highest-growth schools were in Denver, Steck Elementary and DSST:Byers. The others were Aspen Community Charter School, Vanguard High School in Cheyenne Mountain and Victory Prep Academy High State Charter School, authorized by CSI. All but Steck are charter schools.

The five lowest-growth schools in the state include two Pueblo 60 schools, Roncalli Middle School and Benjamin Franklin Elementary. The others were Juniper Ridge Community School in Grand Junction (a new “no-test, no-tech” school) and two Waldorf-inspired schools, Mountain Sage Community School in Poudre, and Mountain Song Community School, authorized by the Charter School Institute.

Race & Ethnicity

There continue to be significant gaps in the percentage of white students scoring proficient or advanced and the percentages of minority students doing so. The largest white/black gap was in math (32.4 percentage points), and the smallest was in writing (27.2 percentage points). The largest gap between white and Hispanic students was in reading (27.8 percentage points) and the smallest was in writing (27.1 percentage points).

In reading white students had the highest percentage of proficient or advanced students at 79.8 percent. Asian students had the highest percentages in writing (68.5 percent) and math (73.4 percent).

Percentages for other minority groups in the three subjects either remained the same or decreased statewide, although there were increases for some groups in some grades.

Special groups of students

Proficient and advanced percentages were lower for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, with the largest gap in seventh grade math (34.2 percentage points) and the smallest in third grade math (25.2 percentage points). Subsidized lunches are used as a proxy for poverty, albeit an imperfect one.

Percentages for English language learners classified as fluent English proficient increased in most tested grades on reading and writing, while math proficiency increased in four of eight tested grades. Improvement by grade was more mixed for students classified in two less-fluent categories.

The percentage of Title I students who scored proficient or advanced increased from 2013 in reading for grades 5, 7 and 8; in writing for grades 3, 6, 8 and 10 and in mathematics for grades 8 and 9.

The percentages of female students scoring proficient or advanced were higher than those for males in all three subjects.

Some 1,523,301 TCAP tests were given to approximately 507,700 students last spring.

Other tests taken but not counted

Students in grades five and eight took online science tests last spring, and 4th and 7th graders took online social studies tests. (High school seniors will take those tests this fall.)

Different science tests were given to 5th, 8th and 10th graders under CSAP and TCAP, and the social studies tests were new this year.

Scores on the 2014 tests, which are being calculated, won’t count when district accreditation ratings are set later this year.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach state education officials will take, but one option is to go forward with AIR’s plan to create high school end-of-course exams. The state will already need a U.S. Government exam, which lawmakers made an option for districts last year, and likely will need one for science because college entrance exams include little to no science content. It could make sense to move ahead with English and math as well, though it will ultimately be up to the state board.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.