Growing pains

Latest Colorado test results provide long-awaited glimpse at how students are growing academically

Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Newly released state test results measuring students’ academic growth show strong progress for Denver Public Schools in English, slow going for Aurora Public Schools in math and a potentially alarming achievement gap for students with disabilities statewide.

Unlike earlier math and English results that showed students’ proficiency in meeting academic standards, Colorado’s growth report measures how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers. The information, which is the primary component of a school’s and district’s quality rating, is often heralded as providing a more complete picture of how much students, especially those who are less likely to be proficient on state tests, are faring in school.

Put simply, the growth numbers provide a picture of how students are progressing and how fast compared to their peers, not taking into account where they are proficiency-wise.

“If we can take our most struggling kids as far as they can go, and the highest (performing) kids who don’t get the attention they deserve as far as they can go, we’re succeeding,” said Leslie Nichols, superintendent of the tiny rural Hinsdale School District in southwest Colorado. Hinsdale students posted higher growth rates in English than any other school district in the state.

In 2009, Colorado began using the growth measure, which relies on results from the state’s English and math standardized tests, to supplement basic achievement data.

A student’s growth percentile, which ranges from 1 to 99, indicates how that student’s performance changed over time, relative to students with similar performances on state assessments. School and district growth rates, which make up the greatest share in their quality ratings, are determined by the median growth score from all students in that school or district.

Tuesday’s release marks the end of a multi-year transition from the state’s previous testing system, TCAP, to its current system that includes PARCC English and math tests.

Because of the transition to new tests, Colorado neither released growth data nor school quality ratings last year. While hiccups remain, state education officials say confidence is growing in the exams and the data they provide. But members of the State Board of Education last week signaled they were prepared to upend the entire system all over again.

“We’re glad to have a growth metric again,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability. “We believe it provides a really important dimension to understand the quality of a school to go along with achievement.”

State growth results

The state’s median growth percentile is always about 50. Groups of students, schools and districts that have a percentile score higher than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers. Conversely, a percentile score lower than 50 means on average students are learning at a slower rate than their peers.

Hitting the 50 mark represents about a year’s worth of academic growth.

Like under the old system, growth gaps exist between the state’s white students from middle-income households and their more at-risk peers. The gap between students with disabilities, those with individualized education plans, and their non-disabled peers was the largest on the state’s English and math tests. The gap between boys and girls also grew, state officials acknowledged, with girls learning at a faster rate.

Only English language learners demonstrated equal growth to their native-English speaking peers on the state’s English test.


While state education officials called attention to the yawning gap between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities, officials were hesitant to prescribe cause.

“I don’t know if we can jump to conclusions yet,” Pearson said. “But it’s important to make it visible.”

Similar gaps did not exist with other student groups, including English learners and low-income students.

Growth results from Colorado’s 10 largest school districts were mostly in line with the state’s. Denver Public Schools posted the highest growth rate on the English tests, while the Adams 12 Five Star district posted the highest growth rate on math tests.

Aurora Public Schools posted the lowest growth rate on the state’s math tests. APS also tied the Douglas County School District for the lowest rate on the state’s English tests.


Like previously released achievement data measuring how well students are meeting academic expectations, state officials cautioned growth results had less reliability at schools with low participation rates.

Tracking growth in high schools was made more difficult by state lawmakers eliminating PARCC 10th and 11th grade tests last school year, leaving only 9th grade growth data.

To get a full picture of high school performance requires looking at PARCC in 9th grade, the PSAT in 10th grade, the ACT in 11th grade (and starting this academic year, the SAT) and some measure of postsecondary readiness for 12th graders, said Chris Gibbons, CEO of the Denver-based STRIVE Prep charter school network.

“It’s important our view of the performance of a high school – of any school – is informed by the entirety of the school and not just a single grade,” Gibbons said.

Tracking growth in math in higher grades also poses challenges — and in some circumstances, it’s impossible. Starting in the seventh grade, students may take any one of five math tests. Students who took math tests two grade levels higher than their actual grade level did not have growth results in math, said Pearson, of the education department.

‘Critical data’

Nichols, superintendent of the Hinsdale County School District in Lake City, has long been awaiting the state’s release of growth data.

“I’ve been holding my breath for this release of data,” she said, adding that her schools usually has too few students to publicly disclose achievement results.

Hinsdale posted the state’s highest median growth percentile on the English test. On average, the 32 students who took the state’s English test learned at a quicker rate than 82 percent of their academic peers.

Nichols immediately credited her teachers.

“Their expertise in writing and reading instruction is obviously shining through in these results,” she said.

Unlike some other rural superintendents who have been vocal critics of the PARCC tests, Nichols said she and her school district value the critical data the multi-state tests provide.

“I really need that connection to the larger world of education,” she said, adding another change in assessment would prove difficult for her small school district. “I could not do [standards and testing] by myself. I could not write my own. I get tired of everyone saying local is better all the time. It’s OK to measure my kids against something a little bigger.”

Find your school and district’s growth rate

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the Adams 12 Five Star district’s growth rate on the math tests. It is 55, making it the highest growth rate of the 10 largest school district’s in the state. An earlier version reported Cherry Creek had the highest rate.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.