Next month some Colorado parents will get the news that their kids perhaps didn’t score as well on science and social studies tests as Mom and Dad might have expected — an experience likely to be repeated on a much larger scale next year after new online language arts and math tests launch.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved “cut scores” for the new online science tests that were given in fifth and eighth grades and the social studies exams taken by fourth and seventh graders last spring.

The cut scores will be used to classify student performance into four achievement levels.

The science tests aren’t comparable to previous TCAP science tests, and no statewide social studies tests were given in the past. But new achievement-level labels and significantly smaller percentages of students in the top two levels may be disconcerting to teachers and parents who are used to the patterns of TCAP test results.

“We are making a shift in terms of our expectations” towards making students college and career ready, said state testing director Joyce Zurkowski. “This is very different from what we had under CSAP and TCAP,” whose expectations she described as merely “good enough.”

Board member Angelika Schroeder agreed. “What we are calling proficient [now] is not our goal” in the future, she said.

The new state testing system will have four performance levels called distinguished command, strong command, moderate command and limited command. Those will replace the TCAP classifications of advanced, proficient, partially proficient and unsatisfactory.

The science and social studies tests will be scored on a scale of 300-900. The Department of Education is still fine-tuning its final report on last spring’s scores, but based on the cut scores adopted by the board, performance levels are expected to look like this:

  • Above about 800 – Distinguished command
  • About 700 to 800 – Strong command
  • About 550 to 700 – Moderate command
  • Below 550 – Limited command

The four levels don’t compare to the four TCAP classifications, because the tests and the content standards on which they’re based are different. CDE officials expect fewer students will be in the top two levels under the new system initially. (Read descriptions of the four new levels.)

For example, CDE projects that 32 percent of students will be classified as distinguished or strong on the spring 2014 eighth grade science assessment. On the last eighth grade TCAP science tests, just over half of students were classified as proficient or advanced. (See the projected percentage of students at each level on each test in this chart, and check how those compare to eighth grade science results on other tests here.

Students in the top two categories will be considered on track for college and career readiness in the subject. Zurkowski said students with moderate command will need additional instructional support to get on track, and students with limited command will need extensive academic support.

Similar adjustments in scoring, classification and reporting of test results will be made after new CMAS language arts and math tests are given online next spring. (Those tests are based on the Common Core State Standards and were developed by the PARCC testing consortium.)

As has happened in other states, CDE officials expect a drop in achievement levels on the language arts and math tests.

“There could be a drop of up to 20 to 30 percentage points,” said Zurkowski. “We are going to need to work on communication” with parents and the public.

Schroeder agreed, saying that while districts and schools can explain testing changes to parents, the board and CDE have a responsibility to explain testing changes to the general public.

The board approved the recommended cut points on a 6-1 vote. Member Deb Scheffel voted no after expressing concerns that the cut points created “an un-level playing field,” partly because the complicated wording of some questions. “Bad cut scores are bad cut scores.”

The scoring and classification system was developed by 47 educator panelists selected by the testing company Pearson and by CDE. The group included 17 social studies experts and 16 in science. Panelists came from rural, suburban and urban districts around the state and from traditional and charter schools.

The department plans to release the elementary and middle school science and social studies test results to districts in mid-September. Districts and schools are responsible for distributing results to parents. High school seniors will take science and social studies this fall – the first time that 12th graders have had to take any statewide standardized tests.

Results from the social studies and science tests won’t be used in state accreditation ratings of districts and schools until 2016.