Growing pains

Latest Colorado test results provide long-awaited glimpse at how students are growing academically

Students at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora work to solve a math problem. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Newly released state test results measuring students’ academic growth show strong progress for Denver Public Schools in English, slow going for Aurora Public Schools in math and a potentially alarming achievement gap for students with disabilities statewide.

Unlike earlier math and English results that showed students’ proficiency in meeting academic standards, Colorado’s growth report measures how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers. The information, which is the primary component of a school’s and district’s quality rating, is often heralded as providing a more complete picture of how much students, especially those who are less likely to be proficient on state tests, are faring in school.

Put simply, the growth numbers provide a picture of how students are progressing and how fast compared to their peers, not taking into account where they are proficiency-wise.

“If we can take our most struggling kids as far as they can go, and the highest (performing) kids who don’t get the attention they deserve as far as they can go, we’re succeeding,” said Leslie Nichols, superintendent of the tiny rural Hinsdale School District in southwest Colorado. Hinsdale students posted higher growth rates in English than any other school district in the state.

In 2009, Colorado began using the growth measure, which relies on results from the state’s English and math standardized tests, to supplement basic achievement data.

A student’s growth percentile, which ranges from 1 to 99, indicates how that student’s performance changed over time, relative to students with similar performances on state assessments. School and district growth rates, which make up the greatest share in their quality ratings, are determined by the median growth score from all students in that school or district.

Tuesday’s release marks the end of a multi-year transition from the state’s previous testing system, TCAP, to its current system that includes PARCC English and math tests.

Because of the transition to new tests, Colorado neither released growth data nor school quality ratings last year. While hiccups remain, state education officials say confidence is growing in the exams and the data they provide. But members of the State Board of Education last week signaled they were prepared to upend the entire system all over again.

“We’re glad to have a growth metric again,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability. “We believe it provides a really important dimension to understand the quality of a school to go along with achievement.”

State growth results

The state’s median growth percentile is always about 50. Groups of students, schools and districts that have a percentile score higher than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers. Conversely, a percentile score lower than 50 means on average students are learning at a slower rate than their peers.

Hitting the 50 mark represents about a year’s worth of academic growth.

Like under the old system, growth gaps exist between the state’s white students from middle-income households and their more at-risk peers. The gap between students with disabilities, those with individualized education plans, and their non-disabled peers was the largest on the state’s English and math tests. The gap between boys and girls also grew, state officials acknowledged, with girls learning at a faster rate.

Only English language learners demonstrated equal growth to their native-English speaking peers on the state’s English test.


While state education officials called attention to the yawning gap between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities, officials were hesitant to prescribe cause.

“I don’t know if we can jump to conclusions yet,” Pearson said. “But it’s important to make it visible.”

Similar gaps did not exist with other student groups, including English learners and low-income students.

Growth results from Colorado’s 10 largest school districts were mostly in line with the state’s. Denver Public Schools posted the highest growth rate on the English tests, while the Adams 12 Five Star district posted the highest growth rate on math tests.

Aurora Public Schools posted the lowest growth rate on the state’s math tests. APS also tied the Douglas County School District for the lowest rate on the state’s English tests.


Like previously released achievement data measuring how well students are meeting academic expectations, state officials cautioned growth results had less reliability at schools with low participation rates.

Tracking growth in high schools was made more difficult by state lawmakers eliminating PARCC 10th and 11th grade tests last school year, leaving only 9th grade growth data.

To get a full picture of high school performance requires looking at PARCC in 9th grade, the PSAT in 10th grade, the ACT in 11th grade (and starting this academic year, the SAT) and some measure of postsecondary readiness for 12th graders, said Chris Gibbons, CEO of the Denver-based STRIVE Prep charter school network.

“It’s important our view of the performance of a high school – of any school – is informed by the entirety of the school and not just a single grade,” Gibbons said.

Tracking growth in math in higher grades also poses challenges — and in some circumstances, it’s impossible. Starting in the seventh grade, students may take any one of five math tests. Students who took math tests two grade levels higher than their actual grade level did not have growth results in math, said Pearson, of the education department.

‘Critical data’

Nichols, superintendent of the Hinsdale County School District in Lake City, has long been awaiting the state’s release of growth data.

“I’ve been holding my breath for this release of data,” she said, adding that her schools usually has too few students to publicly disclose achievement results.

Hinsdale posted the state’s highest median growth percentile on the English test. On average, the 32 students who took the state’s English test learned at a quicker rate than 82 percent of their academic peers.

Nichols immediately credited her teachers.

“Their expertise in writing and reading instruction is obviously shining through in these results,” she said.

Unlike some other rural superintendents who have been vocal critics of the PARCC tests, Nichols said she and her school district value the critical data the multi-state tests provide.

“I really need that connection to the larger world of education,” she said, adding another change in assessment would prove difficult for her small school district. “I could not do [standards and testing] by myself. I could not write my own. I get tired of everyone saying local is better all the time. It’s OK to measure my kids against something a little bigger.”

Find your school and district’s growth rate

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the Adams 12 Five Star district’s growth rate on the math tests. It is 55, making it the highest growth rate of the 10 largest school district’s in the state. An earlier version reported Cherry Creek had the highest rate.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.