moving the bar

PARCC data provides glimpse at school and district performance, but low participation clouds picture

Colorado schools and the public are getting a more detailed picture of how students performed on the state’s new and more difficult annual assessments with the public release Friday of district- and school-level results.

However, state and district officials say the latest results from the PARCC tests fail to provide a complete picture of student achievement in Colorado because of low participation rates, especially among high school students. The high numbers of opt-outs, because they are concentrated at high-performing schools, all but certainly depressed the state’s scores.

Friday’s new data follows the much-anticipated release of statewide data last month. Those results found — as most people expected — that most Colorado students did not meet state expectations in English language arts and math.

And at first blush, district and school results follow familiar patterns, with middle-class suburban districts performing above the state’s average and school districts that serve mostly low-income students performing below the average.

State and district officials are emphasizing that the first PARCC scores serve as a baseline, a foundation on which students and educators can build as they continue to adapt to the Common Core standards in language arts and math.

In language arts, 40 percent of Colorado students rated as meeting or exceeding expectations, ranging from a high of about 43 percent in 4th grade to a low of 37 percent in 10th grade. Students did worse in math: 29 percent of Colorado students hit those marks, ranging from about 19 percent in 8th grade to 37 percent in 3rd grade.

20 largest districts’ 4th grade English scores

20 largest districts’ 4th grade math scores

DPS achievement gaps persist

The state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, continued its longstanding pattern of lagging behind state averages. But according to DPS’s analysis, the gap is smaller than with previous tests.

On the English language arts tests, which combine reading and writing, 33 percent of Denver students met or exceeded expectations, ranging from a low of 31 percent in 10th grade to a high of 36 percent in seventh grade.

Math scores in lower grades ranged from a high of 30 percent in 3rd grade to a low of 24 percent in 4th grade. Students who meet or exceed expectations on PARCC tests are considered to be on track to enter the next grade — or for high school students, ready for college or career. Overall, 25 percent of DPS students met or exceeded expectations in math.

Data Center | Find your school and district results in our database here.

“We were not surprised by the overall scores,” DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg said, explaining that the scores are in line with other tests that Denver students take.

Compared to the state average, Denver’s participation in PARCC was high — 92 percent of students took the tests.

DPS puts a high value on academic growth. Because PARCC is in year one, growth data, which measures how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, won’t be available until next year.

“The growth data is the most important data,” Boasberg said, because “it’s not about where students came in; it’s about what progress they made.”

While state officials are not finished crunching the test scores to show breakdowns by race and economic status at the district and school level, DPS has done some of that work.

Some groups of students, including students from middle- and higher-income families, did better on the new tests than their peers statewide, DPS says. DPS reached that conclusion by comparing the performance of district students who do not qualify for free- and reduced-priced lunch status with similar students in other districts.

However, achievement gaps within DPS persist. According to district data, white students continue to outperform black and Latino students on the tests. In fact, the difference between the scores in reading and writing grew even bigger than in the past.

20 largest districts’ 7th grade English scores


20 largest districts’ 7th grade math scores

Aurora: ‘We know we need to do better.’

Of the state’s top 20 districts, the troubled Aurora Public Schools district posted the lowest scores on the PARCC tests: 20 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in language arts, and just 12 percent met those marks in math.

With 18 schools considered failing by the state and the district’s accreditation hanging in the balance, the inner-ring suburban district has come under greater scrutiny as of late.

Superintendent Rico Munn, two years into the job, is urging patience as the district hopes to see results from reforms that include reallocating more than $10 million dollars to schools, changing how it recruits and retains principals, and creating a turnaround leadership team.

Munn called the district’s PARCC scores “unacceptable.”

“It is a representation of the work we have done before, and not necessarily a representation of the work we are capable of going forward,” Munn said.

“We know we need to do better,” he said. “We know we can do better. We are looking at this as the new baseline data set we can grow from.”

Munn said of the data on Aurora schools in turnaround status: “I didn’t learn anything. We know our schools that have the most significant challenges. This didn’t give me any new information about that.”

Other districts were not quite sure what to make of the data, in part because of high rates of students skipping the test. Colorado was considered a hotbed of the opt-out movement, and numbers released Friday showed the lowest participation figures in pockets of rural Colorado as well as wealthy suburban districts that usually post high scores on standardized tests.

(For more on PARCC participation rates at the district level, read this story.)

Overall, the state’s PARCC participation rate was 82 percent, an all-time low for Colorado state standardized tests. Under federal law, districts and schools are expected to have to test at least 95 percent of their students. A testing reform law passed last spring created a one-year timeout in the accountability system, so school and districts won’t face penalties for low participation.

Matt Reynolds, chief assessment and systems performance officer for the Douglas County School District, said that because there is just one year’s worth of PARCC data, it’s hard to draw any major conclusions based on performance or participation rates.

Dougco’s PARCC participation rate was about 70 percent, state data shows. Superintendent Liz Fagen said the high number of students opting out “does impact the (performance) data, no question.”

While Douglas County outperformed the state on PARCC as it has on other tests, Fagen said she couldn’t say whether the gap between the state and the district may have narrowed because of opt-outs. Dougco’s fourth grade English scores were 10 percentage points above the state average; in 10th grade English, the gap was 5.7 percentage points. In Dougco and other suburban anti-testing hotspots, opt-out rates are generally higher at schools that traditionally perform strongly on tests.

A number of district superintendents have been highly critical of the long lag time between the administration of the PARCC tests — which began last March — and the release of the scores. Officials with PARCC and its member states cited a process for setting performance levels on the new tests that stretched on for months, and promise a quicker return starting next year.


20 largest districts’ 10th grade English scores

Scores of districts on academic probation

These eight school districts are in jeopardy of losing their accreditation with the state if academic gains are not met in the next two years:

Concerns about participation, privacy

Friday’s release is another milestone in a years-long effort to develop and put in place stronger academic standards, and introduce computer-based tests to see how students measure up.

Unlike the state’s previous bubble-tests, PARCC tests developed for a coalition of states pledge to reward critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization. The academic standards, which were adopted in 2010, are supposed to put students on track for going to college or starting work.

Yet PARCC and the Common Core State Standards have been heavily criticized by some as being misaligned and a federal overreach. Others claim too much time is devoted to the tests and that the results are used to penalize teachers.

Critics of the testing system are optimistic about potential changes under a new federal education law, which President Obama signed off on this week, that significantly shifts power over testing and accountability away from the federal government and to states.

The PARCC results largely mirror equally rigorous tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Programme for International Student Assessment, said Joyce Zurkowski, the state education department’s assessments chief.

“We’re hearing that — frankly — as school districts look at their results they are not completely unexpected,” Zurkowski said.

Zurkowski said that while the data leaves some holes, she’s confident schools can find meaningful insight from their results.

“I think that participation is relevant for folks to be looking at,” she said. “But this is the starting point.”

She believes schools, districts and parents can compare results from schools that serve similar demographics and — at the least — tested a representative sample of students. Districts will deliver PARCC report cards to parents, with the timing up to districts.

“I think there is enough meaningful data to make a lot of comparisons,” she said. “Our comparisons are more limited because of the participation issues. If I’m a school, I’m not going to be interested in comparing myself to another that had only 10 percent participation.”

Because of increasing concerns about privacy, the Colorado Department of Education decided for the first time this year to obscure the results when there were fewer than three students in a category, whether that category was related to students who met expectations or students who didn’t. Officials said the fear was that someone with knowledge of a particular school or group of kids would be able to identify who those individual students were.

Graphics by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat 

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including some from the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the innovation schools dropped use of just some of the services from the district’s human resources department.

On the right track

Aurora state test results mostly moving in positive direction

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Aurora Public Schools officials are optimistic after seeing their latest state test scores, a major factor in whether the district will pull itself off the state’s watchlist for chronic poor performance.

The number of eighth graders that met or exceeded expectations on English tests increased by more than the state average. The district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, nearly doubled the number of ninth graders meeting or exceeding expectations on their English tests.

Another Aurora school, William Smith High School, had the state’s fourth highest median growth percentile for English tests. That means that on PARCC English tests, those students showed improvements on average better than 89 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score from the year before.

But the increases of how many Aurora third graders met expectations on English tests weren’t as big as the average increase across the state. The improvements also still leave the district with far fewer students proficient than in many nearby districts or compared to state averages.

“There’s evidence there that there has been some really hard work by our kids and our staff,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We’ve hit a mile marker in a marathon. But we fully recognize we have a lot of work left to do.”

Aurora Public Schools is the only Colorado district at risk of facing state action next year if state ratings don’t improve this fall. Those ratings will in part be based on the state test data made public Thursday. Munn said he has a “positive outlook” on what the data could mean for the district’s rating.

Disaggregated test data also seemed promising. While gaps still exist between students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch and those who don’t, the gap has shrunk. English language learners are performing better than native English speakers in both math and English language arts tests.

The trends are similar in other metro area districts, but Munn said there are some changes that might be responsible for the better performance by students who are learning English.

The district made changes in how schools teach English by including English language development throughout the school day rather than just during a specific time of day.

The district’s overall median growth scores also increased and reached above 50 for English language arts. For students to make at least a year’s growth, they must have a score of at least 50, something especially important in districts like Aurora where a lot of students are behind grade level.

Aurora’s five innovation zone schools, the biggest reform superintendent Munn has rolled out, saw mixed results. Last fall, the five schools each started working on plans the district and state approved giving them flexibility from some district or union rules and state laws.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

For instance, Boston K-8 school, one that was celebrated last year, had big increases in the number of sixth graders meeting standards on English tests, but big decreases in the number of eighth graders that do.

Central High School, another school in the zone, and one that is now on a state action plan because of low performance, had a median growth percentile of 57 for English tests, meaning the school’s students on average had improvements better than 57 percent of Colorado students when comparing them to students who had similar test scores the prior year. But the math growth score was 46 — below the 50 that is considered a year’s worth of growth.

Central also had a decrease when compared to last year in the number of students that did well on a math test taken by the largest number of students, or more than 400.

Munn pointed out that schools had only started working on the changes in their innovation plans months before students took these tests and said district officials aren’t yet attributing the results, negative or positive, to the reforms.

Some of the data for the individual schools was not released publicly as part of the state’s efforts to protect student privacy when the number of students in a certain category is low.

Districts do have access to more data than the public, and Munn said educators in Aurora will continue to analyze it, school by school, to figure out what’s working and what needs to change.

David Roll, principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, said the test results for his school were somewhat unexpected.

“I was hoping we would continue to show growth, but I was anticipating an implementation dip,” Roll said. “What this is beginning to demonstrate to us in strong terms is that this is a powerful way for students to learn. And by the way it also shows up on their testing.”

The school, an expeditionary learning school which relies on projects and field work, made a change last year to eliminate typical subject courses and instead have students enroll in two projects per semester which each incorporate learning standards from the typical subjects such as history, English and math.

“We always envisioned we were working toward that,” Roll said.

Here’s how William Smith High School ranked on growth scores for English tests: