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State scores mostly flat, but growth in Denver

The first year of the state’s Transitional Colorado Assessment Program – called TCAP – has produced results much the same as the final year of the more familiar CSAP tests.

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s students are reading at grade level, typically defined as scoring proficient or advanced, representing a slight increase over 2011. About 56 percent are proficient or above in math, essentially the same as last year.

Fewer students – 54 percent – are writing at grade level, a marginal decline. Science scores are slightly up, with 49 percent of students achieving proficiency.

“Overall, Colorado has not lost ground but gains are minimal. Learning gaps are persistent and unacceptable,” said Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner for the Colorado Department of Education, who reported the results Wednesday to the State Board of Education.

Added Keith Owens, the department’s deputy commissioner: “Stable is not progress.”

The slight uptick in reading proficiency is good news but it masks a concerning trend – the percent of students achieving at the very highest level, or advanced, was flat again this year. Over five years, the number of Colorado students reading at the advanced mark has actually declined, from 8.4 percent in 2008 to 7.5 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the percentage of students scoring proficient has climbed from 59 percent to 62 percent during that time.

That trend doesn’t hold true in math, where the greatest growth over five years has come in the advanced level. In 2008, 21 percent of Colorado students were advanced in math compared to 23 percent in 2012. The numbers of students scoring proficient in math has remained flat at 33 percent.

An analysis of the results by Education News Colorado and our partners at the I-News Network also found:

  • Minority and low-income students posted stronger gains or smaller declines than white and wealthier students in reading, writing and science. However, the gaps for low-income and Hispanic and black students remained wide compared to white and Asian students.
  • More students are falling behind in math and writing. Nearly 88 percent – or 137,869 students – who scored unsatisfactory or partially proficient in math are not advancing fast enough to reach proficiency in three years or by the tenth grade, the last year the state tests are given. Last year’s figure was 86.5 percent. In writing, 75 percent of students are not on pace to achieve proficiency, compared to 67.5 percent last year.
  • More Colorado students are on track to reach grade level in reading. Some 67 percent of those who failed to achieve state reading standards were not making enough progress to attain proficiency, meaning 80,344 students must show unexpected growth to reach grade level. That’s down from 71 percent last year.

A news release issued by Colorado Department of Education officials acknowledged the difficulty in improving the performance of already-struggling students. The state uses students’ testing history to determine the likelihood they will “catch up” to proficiency.

“Only 33 percent of non-proficient students made enough growth in reading to “catch-up.” For writing, 25 percent of students made catch-up growth, while only 12 percent did in math,” the release noted. “Clearly the state needs to accelerate the learning of our non-proficient students.

Notable findings for school districts and schools included:

  • Some of the state’s poorest districts made the strongest gains this year, including Denver and Westminster, while some of Colorado’s traditionally higher-performing districts were largely flat or declined. That includes Aspen, Fort Collins and Jefferson County.
  • Among the state’s ten largest school districts, students in Denver Public Schools showed the highest growth in reading and writing. In math, students in the Boulder Valley School District posted the strongest growth.
  • Results for Denver’s Beach Court Elementary, the high-poverty school once lauded for high test scores, plummeted in every grade and subject. DPS officials fired Principal Frank Roti this past spring after an investigation found evidence of cheating. The 2012 results plunged by as much as 59 percentage points in fourth-grade writing.

District results

The I-News analysis showed that many of the state’s lowest-performing and poorest districts made some of the strongest gains this year compared to 2011.

In reading, several districts outperformed the state average for gains. The Harrison and Colorado Springs 11 school districts in El Paso County, the Pueblo City district and the Mapleton, Denver and Westminster districts in the metro area posted gains of two to five percentage points in proficiency, exceeding the average gain statewide.

In math, Harrison, Westminster and Brighton increased the percent of students scoring proficient during a year where scores stagnated statewide.

And in writing, the Denver and Westminster districts increased the percent scoring proficient or better at a time when most districts saw scores fall.

One of the exceptions was Commerce City, one of the state’s poorest districts, which saw scores drop in all three subjects.

In her presentation to state board members, O’Brien, who oversees testing in the state, cited these districts as having statistically significant gains:

  • Reading – 30 districts had such gains but the top five are the rural districts of Granada, Haxtun, North Conejos and Salida, along with Sheridan in the metro area.
  • Writing – Aurora, Denver and Westminster in the metro area, and rural Salida.
  • Math – Seven districts had statistically significant gains but the top five are Brighton and Westminster in the metro area, Cheyenne Mountain and Harrison near Colorado Springs and rural Salida.
  • Science – 13 districts posted such gains but the top five are Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, along with rural East Grand, Keenesburg, Prairie and Trinidad. Denver and Harrison school districts also are among the top 13.

O’Brien also noted significant improvement in seven school districts rated as priority improvement and turnaround, the state’s lowest rankings – Aurora, Canon City, Denver, Mapleton, Pueblo City, Sheridan and Westminster.

Denver Public Schools

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg lauded the district’s academic growth, which led the state’s ten largest districts in reading and writing. The district was in the middle in math growth.

“I’m very, very pleased to see such strong progress and very grateful to the work of our teachers and our school leaders and everyone in the district who helped drive this growth,” he said.

“At the same time, it’s clear we have a long, long way to go.”

Since 2005, when the district adopted its strategic Denver Plan under former superintendent Michael Bennet, DPS has posted double-digit gains in students’ proficiency in reading, writing, math and science. The biggest increase is a 14-point climb in math, from a 29 percent proficiency rate to 43 percent.

Boasberg also pointed to promising, if preliminary, results in two areas targeted for reforms – Far Northeast Denver and Northwest Denver.

Virtually all schools in the Far Northeast Denver showed increased proficiency levels and growth scores. In particular, math proficiency increased after a tutoring program was implemented in grades 4, 6 and 9.

And in Northwest Denver, where a controversial turnaround targeting middle schools was approved in 2009, students have made double-digit gains in reading, writing and math since 2010.

Achievement gaps

On the issue of achievement gaps, the state Department of Education reported, “Consistent with previous results, in 2012 there were significant gaps between the percentage of white students scoring proficient or advanced and the percentage of black students scoring proficient and advanced in all content areas.”

The largest black-white student gap was 36.7 percent in science scores, and the smallest gap was 27.8 percent in writing.

Between white and Hispanic students, there was a 34.7 percent gap in science. The smallest gap between those two groups was 27.2 percent in math.

“One part of the report was very alarming, and that has to do with the achievement gap,” said state board member Elaine Gantz Berman, a Democrat who represents the area including Denver. “What at the Department of Education are we doing to work with individual school districts? … We can’t afford to lose another generation of kids.”

“I’m not sure, quite frankly, we have good answers for you,” said education Commissioner Robert Hammond, while noting that CDE is focusing on working with districts that have turnaround and priority improvement status under the state’s accountability system.

Board member Deb Scheffel, a Republican who represents the area including Parker, also pointed to “the intractability of these data over time” and wondered if that means Colorado is following the right path of education reform.

Owens, the deputy commissioner, later said, “I don’t think the big reform pieces have kicked in.” But, he said, “The rate we’ve moving at is still too slow.”

ACT results

All Colorado 11th-graders take the ACT college entrance test. The average composite score was 20 in 2012, up from 19.9 the year before. Average scores on the English and math sub-tests were up slightly, while reading and science reasoning average scores decreased very slightly. The highest possible ACT score is 36.

The state has not yet released individual school or district results for the ACT. Those are expected to be available Aug. 17.

About the TCAP

Tests are administered in February through April, so the 2012 results are a snapshot of how students performed last school year. Reading, writing and math tests are given in grades 3-10; science tests are administered in grades 5, 8 and 10.

Some 1,654,765 TCAP assessments were taken by about 490,500 students. The first CSAP tests were given in 1997, and the state assessment system now includes 31 separate tests.

The TCAP tests were launched to accommodate changes in the state’s academic standards, which set guidelines for what students are taught and, by extension, what they should be able to demonstrate on tests. The tests were designed so that results can be compared to previous CSAP scores.

The TCAP system originally was intended to be used only in 2012 and 2013, with new “permanent” tests fully aligned to the new academic standards rolling out in 2014.

But the state legislature this year declined to fully fund the Department of Education’s request for the money to develop new Colorado-only tests, making it likely that the TCAPs also will have to be used in 2014. Some legislators and the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper want Colorado to use multi-state tests being developed by two national groups. Those tests will be available by 2015 at the earliest.

O’Brien said the testing system after 2015 is “going to be a very different system.” The department hopes tests will be online, and she said full implementation of the new state standards means the tests will place greater emphasis on problem solving and having students apply their knowledge.

“In the next five years, we’ll be revealing our strengths and weaknesses in new ways,” she said. “It will be a challenge.”

Colorado’s largest school districts ranked by 2012 TCAP reading performance

Colorado’s largest schools districts ranked by 2012 TCAP growth performance, all subjects

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