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Colorado school test scores flat, local results mixed

August 14, 2013 Updated: August 14, 2013 at 4:15 pm
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Centennial Elementary School third grade teacher Cathleen Irons quizzes students using a Smart Board in class Tuesday, August 13, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

If the 2013 state assessment test results were an electrocardiogram, the patient would be in danger.

The Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the current rendition of standardized state tests, along with its predecessors, has flatlined for a number of years.

This year is no different.

In general scores the Colorado Department of Education released Wednesday in reading, writing, math and science are stagnant across the state and the Pikes Peak region, aside from some instances where individual districts and schools have beaten the trend.

Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, which traditionally has some of the highest TCAP scores in the state, did particularly well in math. Nine of 18 schools had the their highest math scores ever. Cheyenne Mountain Elementary School posted a 100 percent "proficient" and advanced for third grade. That school and Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy's fourth grade, that is chartered through D-12, were the only ones to get perfect math scores among the 17 districts in the Pikes Peak region.

"There's nothing magic about it," said Superintendent Walt Cooper. The district three years ago began using Pearson's enVision Math which helps with all pieces of the subject. But he said it takes a lot more than a good text to get those scores. "I'm not really sure it's about curriculum. If you have good teachers and engaged students, and differentiated instruction on what the students need most, you will do well."

Harrison School District 2 dramatically increased its math scores on the latest TCAP, closing gaps and exceeding state score in math in many schools. D-2 has innovative programs that have helped it dig out of sate academic probation. More than 70 percent of the students in the district are impoverished.

Superintendent Andre Spencer said last year, D-2 targeted math and redesigned the curriculum with stronger emphasis on depth and complexity of the Common Core Standards. "We started intervention early and honed in on skills we know kids have difficulty with," he said. For example, fractions are usually a problem, so they have blended fraction study into social studies, reading, and science.

Students in Colorado Springs School District 11 also are demonstrating STEM aptitude.

Both science and math results show upswings for elementary grades. For the first time, D-11 elementary math scores are above state performance levels, while elementary science results indicate "solid improvement," said Jeanice Swift, assistant superintendent for instruction, curriculum and student services.

"Over time, we've been on par with the state numbers in math, now we're out-performing the state. It's remarkable data, given that we have a greater impact of poverty and second-language students overall," she said.

The indicator of that - the amount of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches - is 42 percent statewide. For D-11, it's 54 percent.

"We know when we perform above the state, it's really significant," Swift said. "We're very excited at the patterns of growth we see and will continue to focus on improvement as we set our sights on the new Colorado academic standards. It's important we have our vision up and out this year."

Falcon School District 49 recorded its best scores in fourth-grade reading, and third- and fourth-grade math in more than six years. Eighth-grade science scores are also the highest since before 2008.

Amber Whetstine, school improvement coordinator, says "21st century learning" is paying off.

"We have to teach in a way we never taught before - we're incorporating more rigorous curriculum and opportunities for students to collaborate, communicate and problem-solve," she said, adding that the district also has been ambitious in implementing new technologies and resources.

Woodmen Hills Elementary School was a standout, scoring 92 percent "proficient" and "advanced" in third-grade math, one of the highest scores ever, and 90 percent "proficient" and "advanced" in fourth-grade math.

Principal Kelly Warren cites hard work.

"Our staff builds relationships with students to ensure their academic success and continually strives to improve our individual and team skills."

Air Academy High School in Academy District 20 improved in every subject at every grade level.

"We had an outstanding year on our TCAP scores and showed significant growth in several areas," said Superintendent Mark Hatchell. "Our scores reflect outstanding achievement and show strong overall gains."

Statewide, though, scores were lackluster.

There's a reason for the lack of movement, says Mary Snyder, dean of the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

States began measuring student achievement with annual assessments following the Congressional No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

"It was well-intended - an attempt to leverage authority to close the achievement gap between different groups of students and make every student proficient in English and math by 2014," Snyder said. "Initially, you saw increases in performance, but we've stopped making progress."

Meaningful advances haven't happened, Snyder said, because "there hasn't been an attempt to focus on the supporting curriculum and standards. Schools can't do more than what they've done."

That may be changing, and educators say better results may be around the corner.

Colorado and many other states are aligning their K-12 common core standards. The goal is to build a pathway to college and career readiness, educators say. Colorado is a member of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which has created shared English language arts (reading and writing) and mathematics assessments that are being put in place.

Administrators and teachers have been getting training in the new standards from the Colorado Department of Education and other state academic consultants. But adoption by districts and schools is far from complete.

At the same time, there is a concerted effort to emphasize Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, believing it's the professional ticket to success not only in those disciplines, but other subjects that will benefit from the critical thinking.

Test scores are starting to reflect the trend toward emphasizing STEM education in some local districts and schools.

That makes sense, Snyder said.

"It wouldn't surprise me that schools that have put a real emphasis on STEM curriculum and the resources behind it would see movement in those areas," she said. For example, females increased in all grades in science, statewide. Math overall, though, remained relatively flat for all grades, statewide.

Colorado administered 1.7 million TCAP tests to nearly 500,000 students this past spring. Students in third through 10th grades were tested in reading, writing and mathematics, and students in fifth, eighth and 10th grades were tested in science. Females scored proficient or advanced proficient more than males in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Males scored higher this year on the tests than 2012 in third, seventh, ninth and 10th grades. Overall, males had higher scores than females in all grades.

This year's TCAP scores, are, as the name implies, "transitional," as schools have been getting ready for the switch to common core standards. School districts have instituted only small pieces and are beginning to get a handle on how to teach the new requirements, notes Mary Pittman, math content specialist for the Colorado Department of Education. Next year's state assessment tests promise to be even more rigorous as even more of the common core standards are incorporated.

In 2014, TCAPs in reading, writing and math still will be in place. The new standards will be fully introduced into tests in 2015. The new science test will be administered next year for fifth-, eighth- and 12th-graders, and for the first time, social studies will be tested in fourth, seventh and 12th grades.

Given the flatline of this year's tests, it is expected that a dip in scores might occur overall next year because the tests will be harder. Other states that have already have switched to the new academic standards have experienced a drop in test scores, said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment for Colorado Department of Education.

"But as more kids are thoroughly exposed to the new expectation and standards, they will perform better on assessments," Zurkowski said.

And students should be better prepared for career and college after graduation with the added concentration on common core and STEM, she said.

"STEM is a shift in paradigm," says Violeta Garcia, STEM coordinator for Colorado Department of Education. "It's not just math or science, but world relevance. It's a new idea. We are looking at transferable skills."

For example, Pittman noted the new state standards are transorming the way math is taught in lower grades.

"We have stagnated on assessment tests. Math education in the U.S. and our state for too long has been a mile wide and an inch deep," Pittman explained.

Schools are now going to use a model that has worked well in other countries where students in later grades leave U.S. students in the dust in science and math.

"It's a refocus," Pittman noted. "What we are doing is digging deeper. Before, texts were way too large and there were too many topics. It was repetitive learning. Now we are concentrating on numbers and geometry to expand the spatial thinking of the students."

She explained it's like learning a foreign language. "The goal is fluency in all number ideas, to conceptualize that."

By third grade there will be required academic interventions for those who need it, so students have a strong foundation going forward.

Snyder points out that standardized testing is merely a snapshot in time of how well a student performs on one particular day. "It's not the best indicator; it's only an indicator," she said.

She's concerned that too much importance is being placed on testing.

"The problem is all the time we spend preparing students at the expense of other subjects that are just as important. We've gained some proficiency in math and English, but at the expense of science, social studies, art, music, P.E. - all the things that make a person a well-rounded individual," Snyder said. "We've sacrificed a lot for the sake of testing."


Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw



Statewide, reading results across all grades up by .2 percent. Third and 10th grades improved by at least 3 percentage points over the six-year period between 2008 and 2013.

Locally, four schools tallied perfect scores of 100 percent proficient or advanced:

?- The Classical Academy College Pathways, ninth grade (Academy School District 20)?

- Thomas MacLaren School, seventh grade (Charter School Institute)

?- Vanguard High School, ninth grade (Charter School Institute)

?- Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, sixth grade (Colorado Springs District 11)


Writing results statewide increased across all grade levels by 1 percent. The scores are highest ever for ninth grade at 55 percent proficient and advanced.Here are the top local scores.

?- Thomas MacLaren School, eighth grade, 96.6 percent proficient and advanced (Charter School Institute)

?- The Classical Academy College Pathways, ninth grade, 96.4 percent proficient and advanced(Academy School District 20)?

- James Irwin Elementary, fifth grade,95.2 percent proficient and advanced (Harrison School District 2)

?- Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, seventh grade, 95.0 percent proficient and advanced (Colorado Springs School District 11)


The percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced increased across all grades by .9 percent over 2012, except eighth grade, which stayed the same.

Local schools that posted significant gains:

?- Midland Elementary School, fifth grade, from 41.2 percent in 2012 to 75 percent proficient and advanced in 2013 (Colorado Springs School District 11)

?- Cresson Elementary School, sixth grade, from 36 to 70 percent proficient and advanced (Cripple Creek-Victor School District RE-1)?

- Stratton Meadows Elementary School, fifth grade, 41 to 70 percent proficient and advanced (Harrison School District 2

?- Otero Elementary School, fourth grade, 56 to 84 percent proficient and advanced (Harrison School District 2)


Statewide, percent of students across all grades who scored proficient or advanced increased 1.5 percent over 2012.

Some local schools that bettered their scores significantly:

- Calhan Elementary, 8th grade, from 45 percent in 2012 to 67 percent proficient and advanced in 2013 (Calhan School District RJ1)

- Oak Creek Elementary, 5th grade, from 27 percent to 48 percent. (Harrison School District 2)

- The Classical Academy, 8th grade, from 69 percent to 86 percent (Academy School District 20)

- Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, 8th grade, from 35 percent to 55 percent proficient and advanced. (Falcon School District 49)

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