data dump

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

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
A student and teacher work at STRIVE Prep Federal in 2017. (Photo by 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

Are Children Learning

More Memphis area students are graduating high school. But what does that mean?

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The 2018 spring graduation for the Memphis Virtual School was held May 22 in the Hamilton High School auditorium.

The number of students graduating from high schools in Shelby County and across the state has been rising for the last 10 years, but recent allegations of widespread improper grade changes in Memphis last year called into question if graduation rates were marred.

The results of a deeper probe of seven schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month. But Shelby County Schools officials said a number of strategies have contributed to the district’s growing number of graduates and they believe better monitoring of grade changes would protect the integrity of those numbers, including sudden jumps.

“It’s our goal to aggressively increase academic performance and graduation rates at a more rapid pace, and we’ve implemented a number of strategies to do so,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to see jumps in graduation rates alone as an indicator of improper grading practices.”

Grade changes had an impact on how many students graduated at Trezevant High School, the first school implicated in the controversy. Fifty-three students over four years obtained a diploma without passing the necessary classes, an investigation found.

Leaving high school with a diploma greatly increases a student’s chances of finding a job with a living wage and avoiding jail. But Tennessee policymakers have been pushing for more education beyond high school since college graduates and those with job certifications through technical colleges and similar schools have an even better chance of higher incomes later in life.

School districts often tie student performance to their graduation rates, citing better academics as one factor in rising graduation rates. In addition, federal law requires states to report their districts’ rates every year to monitor if some groups of students are lagging behind their peers.

Marisa Cannata, who consults with districts through Vanderbilt University on how to improve high schools, said getting a high school diploma “doesn’t mean that they’re college-ready.” The only thing the number of students who graduated truly measures is “accumulating credits in a timely manner.”

“I think of them as only one indicator of how well a school is serving a student,” she told Chalkbeat. “True improvement is going to be reflective in multiple indicators.”

Nonetheless, the district’s rising graduation trends reflect a similar upward trajectory for state and national graduation rates. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the total number in a high school cohort.

Tennessee is ahead of the pack in figuring out how to get more students to stay in and complete high school, said Jennifer DePaoli, the lead author on a recent national report analyzing federal graduation rate data.

“Tennessee is a state that we would say has really proven itself when it comes to raising student graduation rates,” she told Chalkbeat, adding it “still has some room to grow.”

In 2013, Tennessee was applauded in a national graduation report for outpacing the national average in nearly every category, including students from low-income families and students with disabilities. But in DePaoli’s report released last week, Tennessee’s growth in graduating its students has slowed, and has the 8th highest percentage of black students who didn’t graduate on time. The state’s graduation rate for students from poor families still ranks among the highest in the nation, however.

Before 2013, most students in the former suburban district, commonly referred to as legacy Shelby County Schools, consistently exceeded the state and national average with as many as 96 percent of students graduating on time. The number of students graduating from Memphis City Schools, which dissolved in 2013 after city school board members voted to consolidate with the county district, lagged behind the national and state average, hovering between 62 and 72 percent.

Legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools graduation rate compared to U.S. (2008-2012)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

Since then, more students have graduated from high school. After the merger in 2013, the county split again into seven school systems.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to have 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2025. The district, which is the largest in Tennessee, now sits at 79.6 percent for the class of 2017. Official numbers for the class of 2018 are expected to be released this fall.

Shelby County Schools, municipal districts, and the Achievement School District compared to U.S. (2013-2017)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

In the middle of all that, Tennessee raised the bar for students to graduate. The state had been stung in 2007 by a national report saying the existing state standards were weak and misled parents about how their students ranked against their peers nationwide. So, Tennessee started phasing in new graduation requirements in 2009 that increased the number of credits needed to graduate and introduced the current end-of-course exams.

Also, the state changed how schools and teachers are evaluated. In 2009, Memphis City Schools got a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul how the district recruits, trains, and evaluates its teacher workforce.

In 2010, the Tennessee Department of Education got a $500 million federal grant to recreate how it measures school success and partially tie teacher evaluation scores to student test results.

The state-run Achievement School District was born from that grant and started taking over low-performing schools in 2012. (The district didn’t have graduating seniors at high schools until 2014.)

In recent years, Shelby County Schools began to use data to help target students who might be at risk of dropping out. That kind of early warning system is part of a growing national effort to use mounds of student data to remove barriers to graduating, such as getting help with schoolwork, or pointing families to community resources to reduce absences early in a student’s high school career.

The district has also added reading specialists for ninth grade students who are behind and night and online classes for high school students so they wouldn’t have to wait until summer to retake failed courses. And before a student fails a class, district leaders have increased the number of offerings during the semester for a student to recover their grade.

In Memphis-area schools, 11 of the 48 in the region have fewer students graduating now than they did in 2008. Four of them dropped more than 5 percentage points:

  • Wooddale High School
  • Raleigh Egypt High School
  • Bolton High School
  • Ridgeway High School

Though there are 13 schools that have seen significant growth in the number of students who have graduated since 2008, they haven’t kept up with the district’s average ACT score, a common indicator of a student’s readiness for college.

But graduation rates and the ACT don’t actually measure the same things, said DePaoli.

“A lot of people would like to argue if graduation rates go up, we should be seeing gains in ACT scores and things like that,” she said. “We would like to see those things track together, but I don’t think there’s enough alignment there.”

Still, she said, “if kids aren’t getting higher scores on the ACT but the graduation rate is increasing, there is something to be really fearful of.”

Five Memphis area schools have now exceeded the district average for students graduating. Here are the 13 with the most growth:

  • B. T. Washington High School*
  • Oakhaven High School*
  • Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School (formerly Frayser High School)**
  • Hamilton High School
  • Sheffield High School
  • Westwood High School
  • Kingsbury High School
  • Manassas High School
  • East High School*
  • Craigmont High School*
  • Fairley High School**
  • Mitchell High School
  • Whitehaven High School*

*Schools that now exceeds Shelby County Schools’ graduation rate
** Taken over by the Achievement School District in 2014

Below you can look at your high school’s graduation rates over the years.

What went down

‘There was no cyber attack,’ investigator says of Tennessee’s online testing shutdown

PHOTO: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Questar’s unauthorized change of an online testing tool — not a possible cyber attack, as earlier reported by the company — was responsible for shutting down Tennessee’s computerized exams on their second day this spring, the state’s chief investigator reported Wednesday.

An independent probe determined that “there was no cyber attack,” nor was any student data compromised, when thousands of students could not log onto the online exam known as TNReady on April 17.

Instead, investigators said, Questar was mostly responsible for this year’s testing miscues. The main culprit was a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool designed to let students turn text into speech if they need audible instructions.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson reviewed early findings of his office’s internal review and the external investigation by a company hired by the Education Department during a legislative hearing in Nashville.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told lawmakers that Tennessee is docking Questar about $2.5 million this year out of its $30 million contract because of the online problems that plagued many students and schools during the three-week testing window.

Payments being withheld are punitive, as well as to cover the state’s costs to address the problems, she said, adding that other discounts could follow.

Last week, McQueen announced that the state plans to launch a new search this fall for one or more testing companies to take over TNReady beginning in the 2019-20 school year. She said a track record of successful online testing is a must.

The text-to-speech tool worked fine last fall when a smaller number of high school students tested online. But the state said Questar made a “significant and unauthorized change” to that feature before the launch of spring testing that affects the vast majority of Tennessee students.  

“We now know this decision led to the severity of other issues we experienced during online testing,” the Education Department said in a statement.

House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. Jeremy Faison asked the comptroller to review the state’s contract with Questar, particularly related to reports of a possible cyber attack. Wilson’s office also looked into other technical snafus that disrupted student testing for days, prompting the legislature to pass emergency laws that make this year’s scores inconsequential.

“We believe that the student testing issues occurred primarily because of how Questar set the student assessment system up to work,” said Brent Rumbley, the comptroller’s information systems audit manager.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies during Wednesday’s hearing, where specialists in the state comptroller’s office also testified.

On the second day of exams, Rumbley said, those issues manifested themselves in a suspiciously high volume of internet traffic to the testing platform.

“That’s what led the Department of Education and Questar to believe that there may have been a cyber attack,” he told lawmakers. “This traffic eventually shut the system down.”

Even though Questar upgraded the processing capability of its equipment in response, students and educators continued to report problems logging in, staying online, and submitting tests until Questar turned off the text-to-speech tool beginning May 1.

The comptroller’s office also found that Questar was ill-prepared to handle the fallout from the technical glitches. For instance, the company struggled to manually recover the high number of tests that students couldn’t submit online. And school personnel calling the customer service line experienced wait times as long as 60 minutes, prompting many to just hang up.

New details emerged Wednesday about other testing problems, too.

On April 25, a Questar employee “inadvertently overrode” custom rosters statewide that allowed schools to match students with available testing devices. “As a result, teachers and test coordinators had to scramble to get students the tests they should take,” Rumbley said.

The next day, more problems erupted when an internet cable was severed by a dump truck in a traffic accident in Hawkins County.

“According to the vendor that manages the fiber optic line, 21 districts were without internet from approximately two to four hours,” said Rumbley, adding that neither Questar nor the department could have prevented the outage that day.

Lawmakers will get an expanded look at the Education Department and its testing program in November when Wilson’s office presents the results of a year-long performance audit, along with findings from a massive survey of Tennessee educators about TNReady.

The two-hour hearing gave lawmakers a platform to take jabs at McQueen and her department for their handling of testing.

Rep. Bo Mitchell admonished the Education Department for tweeting on the second day of testing that Questar “may have experienced a deliberate attack” that morning.

“This gets into the public trust and throwing out information to the public from the Department of Education that the failure was a hack … Whose decision was that to put that out into the public domain without any proof?” asked Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville.

McQueen clarified that the department never used the word “hack,” but reported that the testing system was experiencing a “pattern of data that was consistent with a cyber attack.” The description was based on what was known as the time, she said.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, said Questar’s $2.5 million penalty “seems like a smack on the wrist” given the disruption caused by the company’s mistakes.

McQueen responded that the state is withholding almost $11 million invoiced by Questar for online testing as it continues negotiations. She added that the state’s biggest testing expenses stem from printing and transit costs for paper materials used by about half of its students this year. The state is transitioning to computerized testing and has decided to slow the switch for a second time in the wake of this year’s challenges.

Justin P. Wilson

Questar officials told Chalkbeat last week that the company plans to pursue the state’s new contract next year, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh told McQueen that he doesn’t want the Minnesota-based company involved after it completes its current contract.

“I don’t think we can let Questar get in the ballgame again,” said the Ripley Democrat.

The proposal will be competitively bid, said Wilson, adding that Questar’s past performance will be taken into account.

For more on how Tennessee got here, read why state lawmakers share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches.