Testing Madness

CDE: Participation rate only 83 percent for 12th grade tests

Fairview High School seniors protest CMAS tests during the 2014-15 school year (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

Only about 83 percent of Colorado high school seniors took new science and social studies tests last month, the Colorado Department of Education estimates.

That participation rate is significantly below the 95 percent rate required by the federal government and the 99 percent or so that has been the norm for state standardized tests.

“I did believe there would be fewer kids taking the tests,” Commissioner Robert Hammond told Chalkbeat Colorado, but he said he thought the participation rate would be about 95 percent.

This autumn was the first time seniors have taken state standardized tests. Science tests were previously given in the 10th grade, and the social studies exams were new this year.

The additional tests came at a time of rising public concern about the amount of testing, and seniors in some districts joined in that reaction by not taking the tests.

Student test boycotts seemed to be most effective in the Boulder, Cherry Creek and Douglas County, where a total of about 5,000 seniors didn’t take the tests last month, according to media reports. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story about the boycotts.)

In a Dec. 2 letter to superintendents, Hammond said CDE projected that about 109,000 science and social studies tests would be given, but that about only 91,240 tests actually were taken. (Read Hammond’s letter at the bottom of this article.)

Given two tests per student, CDE figures also indicate that about 5,000 students opted out.

But Hammond’s letter said, “Most districts were in the high 80 to high 90 percentage participation rates, with just nine districts below 60 percent participation.” CDE officials declined to identify those districts because the statistics are preliminary and won’t be validated until January.

Federal law requires that states set penalties for districts and schools when student test participation falls below 95 percent. In Colorado that means district and school accreditation ratings are lowered. But the impact of sub-par participation on 12th grade tests won’t be known until next year, after the main set of statewide tests are given in the spring and all participation rates are calculated.

In his letter to superintendents Hammond said CDE will take a “holistic” approach to participation rates and accreditation ratings.

“We asked districts to do everything possible to have students participate in the tests,” Hammond said, saying such district efforts could be a factor in final ratings.

Districts have the right to appeal accreditation ratings, a process known as request for reconsideration. The department can change ratings if a district makes a good case for extenuating circumstances.

Hammond also said, “Clearly there are some districts that we will be talking to … trying to find out what are their plans for improving [participation] in the spring test and what happened” in November.

Hammond said he doesn’t think any districts actively encouraged students to boycott tests, but he did say, “In some very limited cases there may be some districts that were very supportive of their kids not taking the tests.”

(All 17 seniors at Mancos High School boycotted the tests, according to a Nov. 19 article in the Mancos Times. The newspaper quoted Superintendent Brian Hanson as saying, “That’s outstanding. … Our kids have finally decided that enough is enough.”)

Ilana Spiegel, an activist with the parent advocacy group SPEAK, said, “This fall you heard students say, ‘These tests don’t matter for our future.’ This spring you will hear more parents ask, ‘What do we really want for our children?’”

Given all the debate over testing, Hammond noted that tests for seniors might not be an issue in the future.

“I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some change” in the testing system passed by the 2015 legislature. “We may be dealing with a one-year anomaly,” he said.

He also said participation will be more important next spring, when students starting in grade three take the new online PARCC language arts and math tests. “There should be no surprises, but if there are that will be serious.”

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:


School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.