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 

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.

Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”