The state education department is scheduled Thursday to publicly release a mammoth amount of data detailing how Colorado students performed on last spring’s standardized tests.
We’ll get to dive into state, district and school results from English, math, science and social studies tests, the PSAT and SAT, and student academic growth, which tracks how much students learn each year compared to their academic peers.
The data — beloved or loathed depending on which educator you ask — is supposed to gauge how well students grasp the state’s academic standards that are designed to prepare them for either college or a career.
The state also uses the results, along with other factors such as graduation rates, to issue quality ratings for schools and districts. And in some instances, teachers are rated based on the data.
Here is background and some storylines to keep in mind in advance of the release:
First a reminder of where we stand:
Three years ago, the state made a monumental shift in its testing system. Colorado was one of about a dozen states to drop paper-and-pencil standardized tests in favor of a new multi-state computer-based test.
The PARCC tests would measure critical thinking, a major component of the state’s new academic standards, which devalued rote memorization.
Prior to the first release, school officials in Colorado and across the nation warned that test scores would likely be low considering the newness of the academic standards and tests.
Indeed, they were.
In 2015, only 43 percent of fourth graders met the state’s expectations on the English test. Math was worse: Only 37 percent of third graders were able to complete math equations at grade level.
In 2016, the state saw a slight uptick in scores, mirroring national trends.
However, state officials worried about how far behind students with learning disabilities were compared to their peers.
Here’s a look at the changes in test scores in English and math:
With three years of data from PARCC, we can — finally — talk about trends. But what are we going to learn that we didn’t already know?
For the last two years, state and school district officials have warned about two things: First, don’t compare the results of PARCC to that of previous standardized tests. Second, they said we needed three years of data to pinpoint trends in student performance.
Why three years?
Derek Briggs, a professor at School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder who also sits on the technical advisory board for PARCC, said one reason why we might need three years of data is because of exaggerated bumps sometimes found in the second year of a new standardized test.
“One explanation for this sort of trend was that it would take teachers/schools a year to figure out the emphasis on the new assessment, so in the first year, the alignment between teaching and instruction isn’t optimal, so student performance in the first year is depressed,” he said in an email. “Then in the second year, it snaps back up once instruction and assessment are better aligned.”
Briggs added that so far, no state that updated its test to align to the Common Core State Standards like Colorado did had a second year bump.
So, now we have three years of data: What can we say?
It’s difficult to make sweeping declarations about state trends — especially in a local control state where so many decisions about what students learn is made at the school and district level.
But Juan D’Brot, a senior associate at the Delaware-based Center for Assessment, said that at the three-year mark, school officials and parents alike can start to better understand what’s working or not at individual schools.
“It can serve as a gut check about a school’s general performance over time,” D’Brot said. “If you have three points that are moving upward or constantly moving downward, we can quickly create a story around that.”
It’s more difficult to draw conclusions if a school’s results are less consistent, he said.
And there are some state-level benefits.
“This trend data can help the state evaluate their own efforts to work with districts and schools,” he said. This is especially valuable when school leaders use a variety of data points including patterns of student growth.
The state is suppressing data in an effort to “protect student privacy.” How much will be redacted?
Colorado was once considered one of the most education data-friendly states. But beginning with the first release of PARCC data in 2015, the state began blacking out more school-level data than it had in the past.
The effects of the new so-called “suppression rules” were even more pronounced in the state’s 2016 release. The state shielded roughly 4,000 data points that year, frustrating education reform advocates who say this data helps parents make better decisions about schools.
Stay tuned to see what we won’t learn about school performance due to these rules after Thursday’s release.
After two years of delayed and drawn-out data releases, the state is giving us everything on time and all at once. But the promise of getting data back quicker is still elusive.
In 2015 and 2016, testing data dribbled out of the state education department over several months — state-level results first, then school level, then student growth data. This was a departure from a decades-long routine of releasing test score data in August.
On Thursday, the state will release almost everything all at once. (District and school performance data disaggregated by different student groups is expected within a month.) This is a major victory for the state and the makers of PARCC because one of the longest-running criticisms of the test was how long it took to get data back to schools.
Schools received their results in June, the earliest data has gotten back to the schools since the state switched to PARCC.
But the timeline still falls short of one of the promises of new tests and the demands of the State Board of Education, which going forward wants data back to schools within 30 days.
Is the state’s gradual move away from PARCC at the high school level working to curb the opt out movement?
In 2015, Colorado became one of the nation’s epicenters for the testing opt out movement. Thousands of high schoolers, backed by their parents, refused to take the PARCC exams, claiming they served no educational purpose.
In some cases, entire schools sat empty during the state’s testing window.
In response, lawmakers eliminated some high school tests and changed others. In 2016, more high school sophomores took the state’s tests than the year before. Policymakers hope additional changes at the ninth grade level, set to take effect next spring, will move even more families back to the state’s testing system.
Will the trend continue? We’ll find out on Thursday.