the scores are low

Room for improvement in science, social studies test results

The results are in for Colorado’s brand-new science and social studies tests, and they may give teachers and parents some pause.

Only about a third of fifth and eighth graders scored in the two highest levels on science tests, and 17 percent of fourth and seventh graders scored at those levels on social studies. The social studies tests are brand-new, and the science results are lower than those on last TCAP science tests in 2013 – which aren’t comparable to the new tests.

The results are seen as a preview of how scoring likely will sort out after new language arts and math tests are given next spring in grades 3-11.

(See the chart below for a breakout of the statewide results, and search this Chalkbeat Colorado database for results by school and district.)

The science and social studies results were in line with what Department of Education officials had indicated to the State Board of Education in August, when the board signed off on cut scores for the tests (see story).

Chart

Anticipating public concern and confusion about the results of new tests, CDE officials have been stressing for months that results of the science and social studies tests – and next year’s tests – aren’t comparable to what came before.

“These new standards did set higher expectations; they definitely are more challenging,”  Joyce Zurkowski, CDE director of assessment, told reporters at a briefing prior to Monday’s release of the results. “The cut scores are more rigorous than we’ve had in the past.”

A CDE document is more detailed about why scores may not be what some people think they should be:

“Because the new standards reflect higher expectations, fewer students are meeting or exceeding expectations. Some students who previously met or exceeded standards now show the need for improvement. However, these new expectations do not mean that students know less than they did before or that they are less capable than they were in previous years. Instead, we are simply expecting more of students going forward to show their progress toward college and career-readiness.”

Everything about the tests is new

Statewide social studies tests were never given in Colorado before last spring, and the science tests are significantly different from past TCAP and CSAP science exams. Here’s a breakdown of what’s changed:

Academic standards – Standards are the broad descriptions of what students are supposed to know and do at various grade levels to be considered academically proficient. (Curriculum is the is bundle of lessons, readings, exercises and teachers talking that is used to teach the standards, and choice of curriculum is up to local districts.) The new standards adopted by the state in 2009 are intended to set a bar that ensures every student leaves high school ready for college or careers. – See a description of the science standards here and of the social studies standards here.

Who took tests

  • 64,064 students took 4th grade social studies
  • 62,719 7th graders
  • 64,341 5th graders took science tests
  • 61,459 8th graders

Test trivia

  • The two tests are unique to Colorado, while next year’s PARCC tests are multistate and based on Common Core
  • All four sets of tests are produced by Pearson
  • Science tests are required by NCLB, but social studies in only a Colorado requirement

Test content – These aren’t your old multiple-choice “select-the-capital-of-Vermont” tests. There are multiple-choice items, but students also are asked to do things like read passages of text and interpret them.

Taking the tests – The social studies and science tests were given online last spring, as language arts and math tests will be given next spring. (There will be paper-and-pencil options for districts.) So students have to move screen to screen, check answers by clicking on them, type text into boxes and move objects around on the screen. – Use the links on this page to view and take sample tests.

Scoring the tests – The “cut scores” used to classify students at different levels of proficiency of course are brand-new for social studies and different than they were for the old science tests.

Sorting out the kids – Remember “advanced,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “unsatisfactory”? Those were the categories used to classify student results on CSAP and TCAP, with the combined percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced used as a key marker of school and district performance. Those labels are gone. In their place are “distinguished command,” “strong command,” “moderate command” and “limited command.” – Learn what those descriptions mean for fifth-grade science, eighth grade, fourth-grade social studies and seventh grade.

The results

In science, 34 percent of fifth graders were in the top two categories, compared to 32 percent of eighth graders. The percentages in the moderate and limited command categories were very comparable in the two grades.

(Results of the 2013 TCAP science tests showed 48 percent of fifth graders were proficient or advanced and 52 percent of eight graders.)

“We were not surprised at what we saw in the science scores,” based on the experience of other states that have changed tests, Zurkowski said.

In both fourth and seventh grade social studies, 17 percent of students scored as strong or distinguished. Only 2 percent of fourth graders were distinguished, compared to 4 percent of seventh graders. But only 32 percent of the elementary students scored at limited command, compared to 45 percent of seventh graders.

Zurkowski said CDE really didn’t have an expectation about social studies because such tests aren’t required in most other states.

Parents will receive individual reports for students that will also break out how students did on individual parts of the tests, such as physical science, life science and other categories on that test.

Scores show familiar patterns

Scores on the two tests showed achievement gaps based on income and ethnicity that echo those recorded for several years on CSAP and TCAP tests.

Achievement gap graphic

Asian students did the best in social studies, with 28 percent of fourth graders in the top two categories and 34 percent of seventh graders. The percentages for white students were 24 and 22. The percentages of Hispanics students scoring distinguished or strong were 6 percent in both grades. For blacks they were 7 percent in the fourth grade and 6 percent in seventh.

In science, 44 percent of Asian fifth graders scored distinguished or strong, compared to 47 percent of eighth graders. The percentages for whites were 44 and 47, for Hispanics 15 and 16 and for blacks 13 and 14.

“There is not an increase in the gaps.” Zurkowski said, adding, “It does appear that our females have caught up with our male students in science.”

Girls did between 2 and 5 percentage points better in distinguished and strong in social studies and 1 point better at both grade levels of science.

Lessons for districts & schools

“Schools and districts are going to have to do a little self-examination” in light of the results, Zurkowski said.

Chart of largest districts

“We are encouraging schools and districts to examine what their social studies programming looks like. …Perhaps social studies has not been focus” in the past, when it wasn’t tested statewide,” she said.

This year’s test results won’t be counted as part of district and school accreditation ratings – only whether districts met the 95 percent student participation requirement.

High school seniors will take the two tests next month, with the results available sometime next spring. It will be the first time that 12th graders have had to take statewide exams.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.