Data dive

Colorado students show gains in literacy on 2018 state tests, but disparities remain

Yadira Rodriguez gets her hair done by Mareli Padilla-Mejia on the first day of school at McGlone Academy. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

More than half of all Colorado students in third through eighth grade continue to fall below state expectations in reading, writing, and math, according to results of state tests students took this spring. That’s been the case since Colorado switched to more rigorous tests four years ago.

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In literacy, 44.5 percent of students in those grades statewide met expectations. In math, 34.1 percent did. It’s difficult to compare this year’s scores, released Thursday, to scores from previous years because of changes in requirements for which students take which tests.

However, the percentage of students meeting expectations in literacy went up at least slightly this year in every grade, three through eight. The math results were mixed.

Results in both subjects show a persistent and troubling reality mirrored across the country: White and Asian students continue to score higher than black and Hispanic students, and students from middle- and high-income families outperform students from low-income families.

The gaps between students from higher- and lower-income families are about 30 percentage points. For example, 45 percent of sixth-graders from middle- and high-income families met expectations on the state math test, but only 14 percent of sixth-graders from low-income families did.

“As a society and a state, this is unacceptable,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement. “And every effort must continue to be made to reverse this course.”

Credit: Sam Park

About 550,000 students across Colorado were tested in the spring. Students in third through eighth grades took literacy and math tests that are Colorado’s modified version of the PARCC tests. (The state refers to the tests as the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, tests.) High school students took well-known college entrance exams: Ninth- and 10th-graders took the PSAT, and 11th-graders took the SAT.

The percentage of students meeting expectations on the literacy and math tests varied by grade. In third grade, for example, 40 percent of students met expectations on the literacy test and 39 percent met expectations on the math test. Both represent a 2 percentage-point increase from 2015, the first year Colorado gave the PARCC tests.

Joyce Zurkowski, who oversees testing for the state education department, said that while the upward trends are encouraging, “the change is not happening as quickly as we’d hope.”

Credit: Sam Park

At the high school level, this spring marked the second year Colorado 11th-graders took the SAT, and the third year 10th-graders took the PSAT. Ninth-graders also took the PSAT this year.

Scores on those exams were similar to last year, with Colorado students continuing to do better than national averages. For example, Colorado 11th-graders scored an average of 513 on the SAT reading and writing section, and 501 on the math. The average score of students who took the SAT on the same day nationwide was 497 in reading and writing, and 489 in math.

As in previous years, the data shows girls in grades three through eight scored better on state literacy tests than did boys. The gap between the genders increased the older students got: 54 percent of eighth-grade girls met expectations in literacy, while only 34 percent of boys did.

The reverse was true in math, at least in the lower grades. Boys in grades three through seven scored higher than girls, but eighth-grade girls did slightly better than eighth-grade boys.

Girls also scored higher than boys on the PSAT and SAT, though by 11th grade the gap narrowed to a single point: The average score for girls was 1015; for boys, it was 1014.

Some of the biggest gaps are between students with and without disabilities. For example, just 6 percent of eighth-graders with disabilities met expectations in literacy, compared with 48 percent of eighth-graders without disabilities, a whopping 42-point difference.

Measuring academic progress

The state also calculates the progress students make on the tests year to year. This calculation, known as the “median growth percentile,” measures how much students improve in an academic year compared with other students with similar scores in the previous year.

The state – and many school districts – consider this measurement just as important, if not more important, than raw test scores, which often correlate to students’ level of societal privilege. Growth scores, on the other hand, measure the improvement students make in a year – and provide insight into how effective their teachers and schools are in teaching them.

Because of that, growth scores make up a big portion of the ratings the state gives to schools and districts. Low-rated schools and districts are subject to state sanctions.

A student’s growth is ranked on a scale of 1 to 99. A score of 99 means a student did better on the test than 99 percent of students who scored similarly to him the year before.

Students who score above 50 are considered to have made more than a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time, whereas students who score below 50 are considered to have made less than a year’s worth of progress.

Credit: Sam Park

Statewide data shows white students, students from higher-income families, and students without disabilities had growth scores above 50. Students of color, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities had scores below 50.

For example, elementary students who do not qualify for subsidized lunches had a growth score of 54 in both literacy and math. Elementary students who do qualify had a growth score of 47. Having a lower growth score means it may be harder for those students to reach grade level.

Credit: Sam Park

The state also compares the scores of students learning English as a second language to the scores of students who are not. When the data is cut in that way, the differences are minimal in elementary and middle school. For example, the overall growth score in math for elementary-aged English learners was 49, while the score for non-English learners was 51.

However, the difference in growth scores between those two groups was bigger in high school – a trend that holds true for several other student groups, as well.

Difficult to discern

The reason educators and state officials focus on how different groups of students do on the tests is to ensure schools are educating all students – not just those with the most privilege.

Of all the groups, it can be most difficult to tell how well schools are serving students learning English as a second language. That’s because of the way the state categorizes students.

English language learners who attain fluency score very well on the state tests, especially in literacy. But whether they score on par with – or perhaps even better than – native English speakers remains an open question because that category includes other students as well.

That’s not the only reason it can be hard to draw conclusions about the academic progress of different student groups. Colorado has strict student privacy rules that, for example, obscure the growth scores of any group with fewer than 20 students, officials said.

Education advocacy groups have called on the state to release more information that would provide a fuller picture of whether schools and districts are serving all students well.

Participation rates up

Colorado was once a hotbed of the testing opt-out movement, with tens of thousands of fed-up parents excusing their children from taking the state assessments. But participation has been rising, and it was up again this past spring for students in grades three through 10.

It’s likely that part of the increase is due to the passage of a bill in 2015 paring back the amount of time Colorado students spend taking standardized tests.

But there was another factor this year, too: Zurkowski attributed a bump in ninth-grade participation, in particular, to a switch in tests. Ninth-graders took the PSAT this past spring instead of the PARCC tests. Whereas just 76 percent of Colorado ninth-graders participated in the PARCC literacy test last year, nearly 94 percent of ninth-graders took the PSAT, a preparatory test for college-entrance exams and a qualifying test for National Merit scholarships.

“I believe students and parents are recognizing the relevance of the PSAT test,” Zurkowski said.

The state is set to make another switch next year. Instead of administering the PARCC tests to students in grades three through eight, Colorado is developing its own literacy and math tests.

But state officials said they don’t anticipate a significant change in participation or the ability to compare student scores from year to year. The Colorado-developed test questions will be based on the same academic standards as the PARCC questions, Zurkowski said.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.