the scores are low

Room for improvement in science, social studies test results

The results are in for Colorado’s brand-new science and social studies tests, and they may give teachers and parents some pause.

Only about a third of fifth and eighth graders scored in the two highest levels on science tests, and 17 percent of fourth and seventh graders scored at those levels on social studies. The social studies tests are brand-new, and the science results are lower than those on last TCAP science tests in 2013 – which aren’t comparable to the new tests.

The results are seen as a preview of how scoring likely will sort out after new language arts and math tests are given next spring in grades 3-11.

(See the chart below for a breakout of the statewide results, and search this Chalkbeat Colorado database for results by school and district.)

The science and social studies results were in line with what Department of Education officials had indicated to the State Board of Education in August, when the board signed off on cut scores for the tests (see story).

Chart

Anticipating public concern and confusion about the results of new tests, CDE officials have been stressing for months that results of the science and social studies tests – and next year’s tests – aren’t comparable to what came before.

“These new standards did set higher expectations; they definitely are more challenging,”  Joyce Zurkowski, CDE director of assessment, told reporters at a briefing prior to Monday’s release of the results. “The cut scores are more rigorous than we’ve had in the past.”

A CDE document is more detailed about why scores may not be what some people think they should be:

“Because the new standards reflect higher expectations, fewer students are meeting or exceeding expectations. Some students who previously met or exceeded standards now show the need for improvement. However, these new expectations do not mean that students know less than they did before or that they are less capable than they were in previous years. Instead, we are simply expecting more of students going forward to show their progress toward college and career-readiness.”

Everything about the tests is new

Statewide social studies tests were never given in Colorado before last spring, and the science tests are significantly different from past TCAP and CSAP science exams. Here’s a breakdown of what’s changed:

Academic standards – Standards are the broad descriptions of what students are supposed to know and do at various grade levels to be considered academically proficient. (Curriculum is the is bundle of lessons, readings, exercises and teachers talking that is used to teach the standards, and choice of curriculum is up to local districts.) The new standards adopted by the state in 2009 are intended to set a bar that ensures every student leaves high school ready for college or careers. – See a description of the science standards here and of the social studies standards here.

Who took tests

  • 64,064 students took 4th grade social studies
  • 62,719 7th graders
  • 64,341 5th graders took science tests
  • 61,459 8th graders

Test trivia

  • The two tests are unique to Colorado, while next year’s PARCC tests are multistate and based on Common Core
  • All four sets of tests are produced by Pearson
  • Science tests are required by NCLB, but social studies in only a Colorado requirement

Test content – These aren’t your old multiple-choice “select-the-capital-of-Vermont” tests. There are multiple-choice items, but students also are asked to do things like read passages of text and interpret them.

Taking the tests – The social studies and science tests were given online last spring, as language arts and math tests will be given next spring. (There will be paper-and-pencil options for districts.) So students have to move screen to screen, check answers by clicking on them, type text into boxes and move objects around on the screen. – Use the links on this page to view and take sample tests.

Scoring the tests – The “cut scores” used to classify students at different levels of proficiency of course are brand-new for social studies and different than they were for the old science tests.

Sorting out the kids – Remember “advanced,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “unsatisfactory”? Those were the categories used to classify student results on CSAP and TCAP, with the combined percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced used as a key marker of school and district performance. Those labels are gone. In their place are “distinguished command,” “strong command,” “moderate command” and “limited command.” – Learn what those descriptions mean for fifth-grade science, eighth grade, fourth-grade social studies and seventh grade.

The results

In science, 34 percent of fifth graders were in the top two categories, compared to 32 percent of eighth graders. The percentages in the moderate and limited command categories were very comparable in the two grades.

(Results of the 2013 TCAP science tests showed 48 percent of fifth graders were proficient or advanced and 52 percent of eight graders.)

“We were not surprised at what we saw in the science scores,” based on the experience of other states that have changed tests, Zurkowski said.

In both fourth and seventh grade social studies, 17 percent of students scored as strong or distinguished. Only 2 percent of fourth graders were distinguished, compared to 4 percent of seventh graders. But only 32 percent of the elementary students scored at limited command, compared to 45 percent of seventh graders.

Zurkowski said CDE really didn’t have an expectation about social studies because such tests aren’t required in most other states.

Parents will receive individual reports for students that will also break out how students did on individual parts of the tests, such as physical science, life science and other categories on that test.

Scores show familiar patterns

Scores on the two tests showed achievement gaps based on income and ethnicity that echo those recorded for several years on CSAP and TCAP tests.

Achievement gap graphic

Asian students did the best in social studies, with 28 percent of fourth graders in the top two categories and 34 percent of seventh graders. The percentages for white students were 24 and 22. The percentages of Hispanics students scoring distinguished or strong were 6 percent in both grades. For blacks they were 7 percent in the fourth grade and 6 percent in seventh.

In science, 44 percent of Asian fifth graders scored distinguished or strong, compared to 47 percent of eighth graders. The percentages for whites were 44 and 47, for Hispanics 15 and 16 and for blacks 13 and 14.

“There is not an increase in the gaps.” Zurkowski said, adding, “It does appear that our females have caught up with our male students in science.”

Girls did between 2 and 5 percentage points better in distinguished and strong in social studies and 1 point better at both grade levels of science.

Lessons for districts & schools

“Schools and districts are going to have to do a little self-examination” in light of the results, Zurkowski said.

Chart of largest districts

“We are encouraging schools and districts to examine what their social studies programming looks like. …Perhaps social studies has not been focus” in the past, when it wasn’t tested statewide,” she said.

This year’s test results won’t be counted as part of district and school accreditation ratings – only whether districts met the 95 percent student participation requirement.

High school seniors will take the two tests next month, with the results available sometime next spring. It will be the first time that 12th graders have had to take statewide exams.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” Asmus said. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, Asmus said. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.

moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.