data dump

Colorado state test scores inch up, but wide socioeconomic gaps remain

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Three years after Colorado introduced new, more demanding standardized tests, student performance statewide is slowly ticking up, according to data released Thursday.

Most students still are falling well short of meeting the state’s expectations on the PARCC math and English tests, which are meant to measure whether students are on track to be prepared for life after high school.

But state officials applauded progress: 42 percent of students who took the tests last spring met the state’s learning goals in English, and 33 percent met them in math. That’s an increase of about 2 percentage points in both subjects since 2015, the first year the tests were given.

The state’s poorest students continue to academically lag behind their more affluent peers by wide margins. The gaps remain wide — some as large as 30 percentage points — and are generally not tightening because all students are making progress at about the same rate.

Only 27 percent of Colorado fourth-graders who qualify for subsidized meals at school met grade-level expectations on the English test, while 58 percent of their more affluent peers made the grade.

“We are pleased to see performance improvements by so many students across Colorado, and we know this only comes after a lot of hard work and dedication from educators, parents and students,” Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “At the same time, our focus on our historically disadvantaged students must remain a top priority. In too many cases, those groups are not showing gains at a pace that will allow them to catch up, so CDE will increase our focus on providing support to our districts and schools to help them with this challenge in the next few years.”

Those results were part of a trove of student testing data released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Education.

Besides achievement data from the state’s English and math tests, the department also released results from its science and social studies tests, and the PSAT and SAT tests that high school sophomores and juniors take. Additionally, the state released student growth data, which measures how much students learn during an academic year compared to other students who scored similarly to them on tests the previous year.

Results for individual students are shared with families, and collectively the state uses them to rate school quality. Some districts use the results in evaluating teachers — one reason the tests are controversial.

About 555,000 students between the third and 11th grades took state tests last spring.

On PARCC, participation rates ticked up slightly and ranged from 96.4 percent in the third grade to 76 percent in the ninth grade statewide. Since Colorado began giving the exams in 2015, schools especially in affluent suburbs and rural areas have struggled to meet a federal requirement of testing 95 percent of their students.

This year’s results were released earlier than in past years, and more data was released at one time. One criticism of PARCC has been how long it’s taken for results to be available.

Data transparency activists, however, are sure to cringe at array of school level results that won’t be made public due to ongoing concerns about student privacy. More than 20 percent of the results released from PARCC exams were redacted to ensure the public cannot identify an individual student’s results.

The state does this by following a complex set of rules that is set off if fewer than 16 students at a school score in a particular range. Before the state adopted these rules, it would only redact results if fewer than four students had the same score at a school.

Find your school’s PARCC scores
Search for your school’s PARCC scores in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“The new tests were supposed to provide better information about what is working and now we know far less,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education watchdog group. “It’s outrageous that CDE has arbitrarily hidden so much of the achievement data making it difficult to know whether schools or districts are working. Only through knowing what works will Colorado educators be able to improve our schools.”

There are other limitations to what the state releases. Ninth-graders can take PARCC math tests of varying degrees of difficulty. That, along with lower student participation rates on 9th grade tests, make comparisons next to impossible. This will be the last year that issue arises: This spring year, all 9th graders will take a version of the PSAT.

In fact, Colorado is beginning a transition away from PARCC tests in all grades starting this year.

District achievement results

Officials in the state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, were celebrating its positive test results.

The 92,000-student district, which serves a majority of low-income students, inched closer to meeting state averages on the tests. The number of students who met the state’s proficiency bar on the state’s English test climbed in every grade. Math results were more mixed. Scores went up on six of the state’s 11 tests.

Aurora Public Schools, the only school district at risk of facing state intervention next year if its quality rating doesn’t improve, showed increases in the number of students meeting or exceeding expectations on several tests across multiple grades including big increases for eighth-grade English tests and fifth-grade math.

But among the state’s ten largest school districts, Aurora continued to post the lowest scores. For example, only 25 percent of fourth graders in the 41,000-student district met the state’s expectations on the English test.

Which kids took which test?
Third through ninth graders took the PARCC English and math tests; fifth, eighth and 11th graders took the state’s science test. And fourth and seventh graders from sampled schools took the state’s social studies exam. Tenth graders for the second year took the PSAT 10 and 11th graders took the SAT as the state’s college entrance exam for the first time.

Progress was also mixed at school districts that serve large at-risk student populations and have a history of chronic low performance on state exams.

More detailed district and school-level data is expected within a month that will detail achievement gaps between different student groups, state officials said.

Growth

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. Put another way, growth is calculated by measuring how students progressed compared to students who had similar scores to them on tests given a year earlier.

This data, which makes up the majority of a school’s or district’s state quality rating, helps provide a better understanding of how students are progressing, not accounting for whether they are proficient.

The state average growth score is always at the 50 percentile, so any growth score above that is considered positive. A score of 50 represents about a year’s worth of learning.

As with achievement scores, the state’s poor students are behind their more affluent peers in academic growth. Students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunches hit the 48th percentile on English tests and the 46th percentile on math. Students that don’t qualify hit 52nd percentile on English tests and 53th percentile on math.

Students in Denver continued to post strong academic growth scores, leading the state’s five largest school districts in that measure.

Find your school’s growth scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“Every year for the past seven, in every subject, our kids have shown more growth than their peers across the state,” said Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “This year was our best growth year ever.”

Meanwhile, students in the wealthier south suburban school district of Cherry Creek fell below the state average on growth on English tests, according to the state data. While other nearby school districts were closing growth gaps between their poor and more affluent students, the gap on English tests in Cherry Creek widened by a point.

Judy Skupa, Cherry Creek’s assistant superintendent, said the district will spend time analyzing its growth data but won’t rush to make sweeping changes based on one year of data.

“Like with anything else, it’s about the trend,” she said.

– Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed

testing accountability

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Does tightening the screws on schools and teachers lead to benefits for students?

For the past couple of decades, school reform efforts have assumed that the answer is yes. Setting ambitious goals, and putting pressure on schools to reach them, would push students ahead. And past research has shown that math scores rose as more states began threatening and sanctioning schools with low test scores in the 2000s.

But a new study shows that continuing to to “raise the bar” during the No Child Left Behind era only had a modest effect at best. That raises questions about whether the small gains were worth the political controversy, and what critics claim were the educational costs, of putting a greater focus on test scores.

“These results suggest that the ratcheting [up] of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” conclude researchers Vivian Wong, Coady Wing, David Martin, and Anandita Krishnamachari.

Their paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on the several years after the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002. The law — which passed with bipartisan support but would eventually draw bipartisan ire — required states to test students annually and set goals for schools. Schools that didn’t meet them faced sanctions.

States each set their own targets using different tests. But the researchers attempted to ask the same questions of each state: How hard was it for each school to hit its goals, and how did that change between 2003 and 2011? Then, they looked at how students did on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Did states see larger gains on the federal low-stakes test after making life tougher on schools?

In many states, it really did become harder and harder for schools to measure up. In 2008, Education Week noted that California’s school failure rate jumped from 34 to 48 percent between 2007 and 2008. In Vermont, the climb was even steeper: from 12 percent of schools failing to 37 percent.

This added pressure, the authors conclude, seemed to lead to national gains in eighth grade math and reading. But the effect was tiny: about half a point in both subjects. (For comparison’s sake, the difference in performance between white and black students in eighth grade math was 32 points on the latest test.)

“Though they find positive effects, like everyone in this literature, they are small [effects],” Tom Dee, a Stanford education professor.

That said, the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged groups: English language learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students who started at the lowest levels of performance.

There was no evidence of higher standards causing any improvements in fourth grade math or reading.

If this shows that raising the bar doesn’t do much, though, past research has shown that just having a bar can make a big difference.

In states that didn’t have accountability systems at all before No Child Left Behind, creating them led to big gains on national low-stakes math tests: 8 points in fourth grade and 5 points in eighth grade, according to a study from Dee.

Together, this research bolsters a theory known as the “accountability plateau” — that creating tougher rules boost performance, but ratcheting up the pressure leads to diminishing returns.

“It seems like when you implement an accountability system there’s an initial bump, but after that continued gains are hard to come by,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied standards and accountability systems.

Dee was more skeptical of this idea. Schools’ goals were getting harder and harder to reach just as criticism of the law was cresting and politicians were considering changes.  

“Districts may have understood it was a nudge and a wink and it didn’t really have teeth,” he said of the law.

No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes a different tack. Instead of giving each state discretion in how many schools are identified as failing and requiring them to ramp up the consequences over time, the law requires each state to identify 5 percent of schools as low-performing.

The latest study suggests that might be a preferable approach if states are able to figure out better ways to help a small group of struggling schools improve. Turnaround efforts — including a prominent federal program backed by a lot of money — have often produced disappointing results.

“It remains unclear how states will implement ESSA,” write the researchers. “But the federal law will likely not succeed if performance requirements are not accompanied by additional support for educators.”

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”