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.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.