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).


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.


During visit to Memphis, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As Newark top schools chief, she was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, Cami Anderson has left the district and taken her ideas about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices on the road.

This week Anderson is meeting with educators in Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project. She is working with The New Teacher Project on this tour.

In her most comprehensive visit so far, Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”