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.

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”

School discipline

Even as suspensions fall, Memphis students are being kicked out of school longer, data shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis alternative school students work with local activist Keedran Franklin, in yellow, to brainstorm policy proposals to prevent other youth from being incarcerated. At the top of the list was mentoring and jobs. Just under that was a call to eliminate suspensions and expulsions and replace with fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

Hidden behind what Memphis education officials have said is good news when it comes to student discipline is a disturbing trend: As short-term suspensions have decreased, expulsions have increased.

Graphic by Samuel Park

Last year, Shelby County Schools handed down nearly 2,500 expulsions, according to district data. That’s about 300 more than in the 2015-16 school year — when the district already had one of the highest expulsion rates in the nation, according to federal data.

In one extreme example, a single high school issued one expulsion for every six students.

On average, expelled students were barred from school for 106 days, or more than half of the school year.

And while Tennessee law and district policies mandate expulsions for some offenses, 83 percent of the expulsions came at school leaders’ discretion. A third were for violations of relatively minor rules.

The expulsion data reveals mixed results for the district’s push to reduce discipline methods that keep students out of school. Shelby County Schools handed out 4,700 fewer suspensions last year than in the 2015-16 school year. Yet the rise in expulsions means that the total number of school days that students missed for discipline reasons actually increased.

Students spent about 14,200 more days in class because of the reduction in suspensions, based on the average three-day punishment. But the increase in expulsions resulted in close to 33,700 more missed school days.

The district’s black boys bore the brunt of the trend. They make up 38 percent of the district’s more than 100,000 students, but accounted for 67 percent of expulsions last year.

The data is raising questions among supporters of Shelby County’s discipline push, which launched as the federal education department pressed districts to limit suspensions and expulsions and reduce racial disparities among students who are punished.

“What we don’t want is for practices that we’re trying to replace to be replaced with practices that don’t support students,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the district’s discipline efforts. “If we hide at all what are the real struggles, then we don’t identify the resources that are needed.”

(Tennessee defines suspensions as exclusions from school lasting less than 10 days; suspensions longer than 10 days are called expulsions. The district provided the length of expulsions only for students without disabilities, about 92 percent of expelled students.)

Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

District officials emphasized the reduction in suspensions and blamed the high expulsion numbers on charter schools and the state’s “zero-tolerance” law that requires expulsions for certain offenses. “Charters most often do not use in-school suspensions and progressive discipline, so their expulsions increase our numbers,” said a spokesperson, Natalia Powers.

But the district’s own data showed that charter schools, which have also worked to reduce suspensions, collectively reported 64 expulsions last year, 3 percent of the district’s total. And data the district provided showed that at most, only a quarter of expulsions were mandated by law.

District officials have also said they are confident that the district’s nine alternative schools for expelled students are serving those students well. One of those schools, G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, recently received state recognition for its work with expelled students and students who are transitioning out of incarceration. Students there meet with behavior specialists, mental health clinicians, and social workers, while families get support as well. District officials said as many as 40 percent of students choose to stay at Carver after their expulsion is over.

“They’re children and they sometimes make poor choices,” said Valerie Matthews, the district’s alternative schools director, at a recent conference for young men who attend alternative schools. “We keep them on track academically, we teach them how to modify their behavior, we work with them, we’re patient with them, we love on them, and it works.”

But students who are expelled are not required to enroll in alternative schools — something that the district’s school board has asked state legislators to change.

Matthews acknowledged that not all students who are expelled wind up in alternative schools. She said students who are excluded from school for less than a month frequently do not make the switch, and other students don’t attend because they cannot get to the alternative schools. The district provides bus passes, but the city’s struggling bus system can make using them challenging.

That reality means there are students who aren’t being educated because of their misbehavior — and, students say, could make them more likely to run into trouble in the future.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
John Chatman is a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school in Memphis that recently received recognition from the state for its services for expelled students and those returning to school after incarceration.

“When they stay out of school, it’s not really a lesson learned, because the only thing they do is go home and chill, or go out and do the same stuff they been doing,” said John Chatman, a Carver Academy senior who was expelled from both East High School and Northeast Prep, another alternative school. “It takes away from education. It also puts them back into an environment that they were trying to escape from.”

Indeed, removing or excluding students from class does not address misbehavior, said Zoe Savitsky, an attorney who oversees education litigation and policy reform for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Would you ever say to a 6-year-old, ‘Get out of my classroom until you learn to read?’” she said. “You actually have to teach behavior skills you want them to have. And exclusionary discipline just ignores that reality.”

Principals in Memphis schools have a great deal of discretion in handing out discipline. Just 17 percent of expulsions in Shelby County Schools last year were required under Tennessee’s “zero tolerance” rules, which mandate expulsions for serious assaults on school employees; drug use or possession, and having a firearm at school.

Half of the expulsions were for what the district calls “other threats” and offenses that include fighting and assaults that do not result in serious injury.

And a full third of the expulsions were for what the district calls “rules violations” that could include skipping class or being out of uniform.

The district did not offer more detail about which rules being broken resulted in last year’s expulsions. But many of the behaviors that fall into that category are exactly the kinds of offenses that the district has targeted in its push to reduce suspensions.

2018 Youth Action Networking event

  • What: Students in BRIDGES’ advocacy program for formerly incarcerated youth will present their ideas on how to reduce both suspensions and expulsions to several district and county leaders. The event is sponsored by Bridge Builders USA, the University of Memphis Law Diversity & Inclusion Office, and Project MI.
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
  • Where: BRIDGES, 477 N. 5th Street, Memphis, TN 38105

As part of that push, the district has hired more staff to dig into why students misbehave, crafted individual plans to help students improve, and rolled out alternative consequences before barring students from school. Now, 20 “behavior specialists” each work with about 10 schools to reduce suspensions, meaning that schools that don’t hire their own get only a little bit of support in working with students who misbehave.

“It kind of escalates, and [teachers] have to end up making an office referral for something that probably could have been redirected if they had the right tools,” Hargrave said. “If every school had someone who was an expert in trauma-informed practices or dealing with difficult behaviors along with the general staff, that would be ideal.”

Students suspended or expelled from school are more likely to have lower test scores, drop out of school, or become involved in crime than other students, links that led to the national push to reduce exclusionary discipline.

Advocates say that shift is especially necessary in Memphis, which has the highest rate in the nation of young adults who are not in school or working. Earlier this year, Orrin’s organization invited national expert Cami Anderson to train Memphis school leaders to prevent expulsions and suspensions and use alternative ways to discipline students.

Anderson previously was the superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school district and led New York City’s system of alternative schools for students with behavior issues. She said she’s not surprised expulsions went up while Shelby County Schools focused on reducing suspensions.

“If you only look at one, without intending, you can incentivize schools to take actions that have worse outcomes for kids,” Anderson said. “That’s true across the country.”