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Colorado standardized testing sees significant increase in participation

August 11, 2016 Updated: August 12, 2016 at 9:16 am
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The Colorado Department of Education released partial results from the spring cycle of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success. Gazette file photo.

Scores from year two of new English, math, science and social studies tests for Colorado public school students still aren't enough to identify performance patterns, state education officials say.

"For trends we need at least three years," Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment for the Colorado Department of Education, said during a media briefing this week.

The department released partial results from the spring cycle of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success at Thursday's State Board of Education meeting in Grand Junction.

Along with keeping tabs on school accountability, teachers and parents can use the data to help pupils advance in their studies and be on track for college or a career after they graduate, Zurkowski said.

For example, results for the new PSAT test all 10th-graders took in the spring contain "a list of skills they need to work on to improve their scores," she said. Free materials are available online to help students do tutorials personalized to their test results and understand what the numbers mean.

The CDE has compiled statewide, district- and school-level scores from the PSAT test for sophomores, the ACT college prep exam for juniors, and science tests taken by students in grades 5, 8 and 11.

The CDE expects to release the remaining district and school results from English language arts and math tests from PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, on Sept. 1.

Third- through ninth-graders took reading, writing, communications and math exams. In all, schools administered 21 tests in four subject areas.

Social studies test scores will not be made public because students in grades 4 and 7 were tested on a random sampling basis in one-third of the schools, according to the CDE.

August is when scores from state assessments historically have been disbursed, Zurkowski said. Last year's results were not available until December, which drew criticism from some who said it was too late to apply impactful changes for students.

The 2015-16 academic year was the first full year of the new tests, half of which were designed by state education officials and the other half by a national consortium. All are designed to match more rigorous academic standards that gauge from kindergarten whether students are on track for grade-level performance.

After many school leaders, parents and students complained that the new system took too much classroom time, state lawmakers reduced the frequency and duration of the tests starting last school year.

Zurkowski said this year's results were delayed somewhat by the legislative change that allows students the option of testing with paper and pencil rather than on a computer. Statewide, an estimated 5 to 7 percent of students took the tests using the paper and pencil method, she said. That, coupled with essay-type questions, meant all or some of the tests had to be scored by hand.

"We continue to make efforts to get the data out earlier and earlier," Zurkowski said, adding that this year "technical processes" will be done beforehand to speed up the process.

Participation from students improved over the 2014-2015 school year, when many parents objected to the new format and refused to let their children take the tests. Lawmakers have since allowed for parents to do that without any recourse to students or schools.

Participation "stabilized," Zurkowski said, particularly among elementary school students, where statewide nearly 95 percent of students took the tests. Grades 6 and 7 saw close to 90 percent participation, and grade 8 was at 85 percent. Ninth-grade participation was 74 percent.

"When you compare last year and this year, we went from the low 60s to the high 80s. That's a significant increase in participation," Zurkowski said.

Refusals were "disproportionately white, economically better off and more likely to be native English speakers," according to the CDE.

Tenth-grade participation increased greatly with the new format of sophomores taking the PSAT instead of state assessments, up from 70 percent in 2015 to 88 percent this year. The PSAT is tied to scholarship opportunities, Zurkowski said, which should incentivize students, she added.

Districts can feel confident about the scores being an accurate representation of student performance in the lower grades, Zurkowski said.

But, for schools and districts that have very low participation, she said, "It will be very difficult to utilize those results."

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