Tale of the testing tape

Colorado science, social studies scores show modest uptick

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

Scores on statewide elementary and middle school social studies and science tests improved modestly this year compared to last year, according to results from state tests released Thursday.

The one exception was scores on the eighth grade science test, where the percentage of students meeting state expectations dropped by 3.5 points.

The percentage of students clearing the state’s proficiency bar increased by 4.8 points in fourth grade social studies, by 1 point in seventh grade social studies and by 1.2 points in fifth grade science, according to the state Department of Education.

In science, 34.8 percent of fifth graders scored high enough to be considered on track, as did 29 percent of eighth graders.

In social studies, 21.8 percent of fourth graders were labeled as having a “strong” or “distinguished” command of the subject, and 17.6 percent of seventh graders were at those levels.

The 2015 results provide the first year-to-year comparisons of student performance on the science and social studies tests. Both sets of tests were new in 2014.

“It is important to remember that this is just the second year of these tests,” said Elliott Asp, interim commissioner of education. “We expect to see future growth as teachers and students gain more experience with the standards.”

Testing opt-out rates were generally low in the elementary grades but rose in middle school. The department reported overall parent refusal rates of 2 percent for 4th grade social studies and 4.7 percent in the 7th grade. For science, the 5th grade refusal rate was 2.2 percent. The 8th grade rate was 6.2 percent.

How the tests work

The state’s CMAS testing system assesses students in the two subjects once each in elementary, middle and high school. Science tests are required by the federal government, but the social studies test is a state-only mandate. Neither test is based on the Common Core State Standards, which cover only language arts and math.

High school tests in the two subjects were given to seniors last fall. But due to action by the State Board of Education, individual student results of the 12th grade science tests will be available later this summer, but there will be no public reporting of district and school results. The board declined to set cut scores, or levels of proficiency, for the 12th grade social studies tests, so there are no results available to report.

Based on their scores, students are rated as having distinguished command, strong command, moderate command or limited command of a subject. Scoring in the top two levels is considered an indicator that a student is on track for college or a career.

Breaking down the results

Results of the tests are broken down by gender, ethnicity and other student characteristics. Historically, non-white and low-income students don’t perform as well as white and Asian students.

The department said this year’s achievement gaps were similar to those recorded in 2015.

Here are some key points from the 2015 results:

Gender – Slightly higher percentages of boys than girls scored strong or distinguished on both science tests, reversing 2014’s results. Higher percentages of girls were in the top two levels on both social studies tests.

Ethnicity – In fifth grade science, about 48 percent of white and Asian students were in the top levels, with black and Hispanic students at about 15 percent. The numbers of those students in the top levels increased from 2014. Asian students had the highest percentage in eighth grade, 45.5 percent, and percentages were below 2014 levels for all groups except Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. There were similar results for the social studies tests.

Poverty – The gaps between students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch and others ranged from 28 to 34 percentage points in science and from 19 to 24 percentage points in social studies. The gaps were similar but slightly smaller for Title I students.

Other factors – There were similar achievement gaps for students identified as non-English proficient and limited English proficient, and for special education students.

Districts’ performance varied

The state’s 20 largest school districts plus the Charter School Institute, or CSI, generally tracked statewide results, but there were variations in percentage changes in students who scored with strong or distinguished command.

  • A dozen districts plus CSI had larger increases than the statewide figure in fifth grade science.
  • All districts dropped in eighth grade science.
  • Fourth-grade social studies was a bright spot with all districts rising, and nine plus CSI showed greater increases than the state as a whole.
  • The results weren’t so good for seventh grade social studies, with five districts declining and eight rising but still below the statewide increase of 1 percent.

The state’s 20 largest districts plus CSI enroll 685,978 students, about 77 percent of the 889,006 pupils in the state. The institute oversees 34 charter schools that aren’t authorized by districts.

The chart below shows the percentage point change in the percentages of students showing strong or distinguished command on the four tests. For example, 33.6 percent of state students were at those levels in fifth grade science in 2014. This year the figure was 34.8 percent, a percentage point change of 1.2.


Opting out rates varied

Some districts were hit by a wave of test refusals by high school seniors last fall. The statewide participation rate for the high school science was 81.8 percent and 81.7 percent for the social studies equivalent.

Test refusal wasn’t quite as strong during spring testing in the four lower grades, but it was noticeable. CDE reported statewide participation rates of 96.8 percent on 4th grade social studies tests and 93 percent in 7th grade.

For science, the participation rate was 96.5 percent in the 5th grade but dropped to 90.8 percent on 8th grade exams.

The department said the parent refusal rate was 2 percent for social studies and 2.2 percent for science. Students can be listed as non-participating for other reasons in addition to parent refusal.

Participation rates are a touchy issue because the federal government requires 95 percent participation or higher on statewide tests. In Colorado districts and schools can be knocked down one level in their state ratings if test taking falls below 95 percent on two or more exams.

But the state’s accountability system is in a one-year timeout because of a law passed by the 2015 legislature. So, according to the department, “participation rates on the 2014-15 assessments will not impact any state school or district accountability rating in 2015.”

The lowest opt-out rate statewide was in 4th grade social studies; the highest was in 8th grade science.

The Thompson, Boulder Valley Cherry Creek and Academy districts generally had the highest refusal rates, while the lowest were recorded in Greeley (reporting no opt outs), Adams 50, Aurora and Denver.


What’s next

The full picture of 2015 Colorado testing will become clearer later this year when CDE releases results from last spring’s language arts and math tests, known as PARCC. Those were given in grades 3-11.

This was the first year for those brand-new computer-based tests, so results won’t be comparable to the 2014 TCAP exams in those subjects. Still, the state faces a potential public relations challenge because it’s expected that the percentages of students scoring in the top levels on PARCC will be lower than the percentages in the top two classifications of TCAP.

Changes are also coming next year in science and social studies testing.

Another testing bill passed last spring requires social studies exams to be given in only a third of schools each year, ending the testing of all 4th and 7th graders.

Science tests will remain the same in elementary and middle school. But because the legislature banned statewide testing in the senior year of high school, the department will have to find a different year for that science test. It’s expected it will moved to spring of the junior year.

Starting next year 11th graders won’t have to take the PARCC language arts and math tests.

See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for a full review of 2016 testing changes. And read this article for an explanation of the role the federal government will play in those changes.


¿Cuantos niños en su escuela son inmunizados?

Monserrat Cholico, 8, en la Crawford Kids Clinic en Aurora en 2015 (Denver Post).

Chalkbeat recolectó datos para ayudar a los padres a entender si las escuelas de sus hijos están protegidos de enfermedades. Busque su escuela en nuestra base de datos.

“Immunization rate” representa el porcentaje de estudiantes que están totalmente inmunizados.

“Exemption rate” representa el porcentaje de estudiantes cuyos padres optaron por no vacunar a sus hijos.

“Compliance rate” representa el porcentaje de estudiantes que están siguiendo la ley de Colorado. La ley dice que los estudiantes deben obtener vacunas o firmar formularios de exención.

Choosing college

State’s college attendance rate shows slight turnaround

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison

The percentage of Colorado high school students enrolling in college right after graduation increased slightly in 2014, according to a new report from the Department of Higher Education.

Of 2014’s 53,771 graduates, 55.8 percent went on to college immediately, up from the 2013 rate but three percentage points below the record in 2009, according to the Report on the Postsecondary Progress and Success of High School Graduates (full copy at bottom of this article).

In the recession year of 2009, when the state started compiling the report, 58.8 percent of high school grads went to college.

“The most recent, 2014, is the first cohort whose enrollment rate increased from the previous year,” the report noted. “Previously, all graduating classes included in this report had a lower enrollment rate than their previous year.”

The report “is good news because so many of the jobs in our technology and information based economy require post-secondary credentials,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also executive director of the department. “However, the report also reveals that we have continuing and significant gaps in post-secondary outcomes and that students from certain demographic groups are doing much better than others. If we are to meet our education and workforce goals, we must do a better job of supporting low income, rural, and minority students so that they graduate with a credential that will lead to a living wage job.”

Overall college enrollment tends to rise when the economy is weak and drop when times improve. Fall enrollment in 2014 was 251,778, down from the recent high of 284,405 in 2011.

The report details continuing disparities between demographic groups in college attendance and success. Postsecondary enrollment for Latino students is nearly 20 percentage points below white students, and, after their first year of college, African-American students on average earn nearly 10 fewer credits than white students, it said.

“As Colorado’s demographics continue to change and labor markets increasingly demand quality postsecondary credentials, ensuring the state’s future economic prosperity requires that these educational gaps be highlighted and strategically addressed,” the report said.

The report also breaks out college-going rates for individual districts. The district with the highest college attendance rate was Limon, with 84.4 percent of its 32 2014 graduates going on to higher education.

Larger districts in the top 10 included Cheyenne Mountain, Douglas County, Lewis-Palmer and Littleton.

The Plateau Valley district in eastern Mesa County had the lowest rate, 16 percent. Metro-area districts in the bottom 10 included Adams 14, Englewood, Sheridan and Westminster.

Some 76 percent of 2014 grads attended Colorado colleges, and 74 percent of those students attended four-year schools. The most popular schools were Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Boulder. Front Range Community College attracted the largest number of students enrolling in two-year schools.

The annual study examines not only college-going rates but also grade point averages, credits earned, persistence and graduation rates going back to the class of 2009.

Members of the high school class of 2014 who attended Colorado colleges had an average grade point average of 2.78 during their freshman year. Those students completed an average of 30 credits by the end of 2014-15.

Search for your district’s college-going rates here:

And read the Department of Higher Education’s report here: