big testing

Colorado scores on “nation’s report card” decline but stay above national scores

Colorado students did worse this year on the test known as “the nation’s report card” than they did the last time it was administered two years ago, according to data released Wednesday. But the state’s scores are still better than national averages.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is a set of reading and math tests given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in each state. Earlier this year, 4,500 Colorado students spent one hour each taking one of the tests.

On the fourth-grade math tests, 43 percent of Colorado students scored proficient or better, down from 50 percent in 2013. On the eighth-grade math tests, 37 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 42 percent two years ago.

On the fourth-grade reading tests, 39 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 41 percent in 2013. On the eighth-grade reading tests, 38 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 40 percent two years ago.

Most national scores, with the exception of fourth-grade reading, dipped as well but the declines weren’t as steep. However, Colorado education officials said the decreasing scores aren’t cause for concern.

“If we start seeing declines over a period of time — if we see scores dip again in 2017 — it becomes a little more alarming,” said Will Morton, director of assessment administration for the Colorado Department of Education. “Right now, with a single-year dip, I wouldn’t be too concerned about it yet.”

HOW DO COLORADO’s 2015 SCORES COMPARE TO NATIONAL SCORES?

U.S. students have taken the NAEP exams since the early 1990s in an effort to provide a consistent measure of student performance at a time when states’ standards varied widely.

Many states have adopted or are developing new tests that reflect shared standards, potentially allowing for more detailed and frequent comparisons of students across the country. But the NAEP tests are not officially aligned with the standards adopted by Colorado and more than 40 other states. Called the Common Core standards, they detail what students should know in reading and math.

By the 2013-2014 school year, the Common Core standards were in effect in all Colorado schools. The state also rolled out new tests that align with them. Students took the reading and math tests, known as PARCC, for the first time last spring.  The state is scheduled to release the results in November.

“When we look at tests as a measurement for student success — and they’re only one way to measure student success — those tests, which are taken by all students … are what we really look at,” said Dana Smith, interim chief communications officer for CDE.

HOW HAVE MATH SCORES CHANGED OVER 10 YEARS?

But officials said NAEP serves a purpose, too, in that it provides a glimpse into how Colorado students are performing compared to students across the country. Colorado ranks in the middle: Its scores were 23rd highest in fourth-grade math, 17th highest in eighth-grade math, 23rd highest in fourth-grade reading and 18th highest in eighth-grade reading.

“Overall, we’re about where we would expect to be,” Morton said, adding that “if you look at it on a bell curve, we’re in the middle of that bell curve toward the higher end.”

Colorado’s scores have generally improved over the years, while achievement gaps between white and minority students and low-income and non-low-income students have stayed the same. This year, Colorado’s scores did not improve. Morton and Smith were hesitant to speculate as to why, but they noted the differences between NAEP and the Common Core.

NAEP may not be testing what students are learning in their classrooms, they said. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research found that the similarity between the NAEP math tests and the Common Core is “reasonable,” but there are gaps. For example, the study said it appears that “a notable amount” of middle-school math content recommended by the Common Core is not part of the NAEP test.

“As our teachers continue to teach to our Colorado standards,” Morton said, “those differences between what NAEP is designed to test versus what our teachers are being asked to teach — those differences may be highlighted.” But it’s too early to tell for sure, he said.

“Until we have more years of implementation, we can’t really tell if this is an implementation dip or a fundamental difference between our standards and the blueprint of the NAEP test,” Morton said.

HOW HAVE READING SCORES CHANGED OVER 10 YEARS?

NAEP officials took a similar view of the scores, which stayed stagnant or declined in most states.

“One downturn does not a trend make,” said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP tests.

“It’s not a multi-year trend we’re seeing,” added Bill Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the framework for the NAEP tests. He referenced “curricular uncertainty” in American classrooms and said experts have suggested that “slight declines” often precede improvements.

The NAEP tests are not meant to be tied to a specific curriculum, Bushaw said. However, he predicted that the national board would take another look at the framework in light of this year’s scores and reports such as the one from the American Institutes for Research.

In Colorado, officials said that while NAEP is helpful, it’s just one piece of the overall testing puzzle — and one that’s based on a small sampling of the state’s nearly 900,000 students.

“We don’t get too upset when we see small gains or losses,” Morton said.

Chalkbeat Tennessee reporter Grace Tatter contributed information to this report.

Data source: National Assessment of Educational Progress 

Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.