May 7, 2013 Updated: May 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm
Nearly half of the school districts in the Pikes Peak region saw third-grade reading scores decline in Colorado's latest standarized testing cycle. Another four districts' scores remained fairly flat compared to last year's, according to unofficial figures the Colorado Department of Education released Tuesday. Only four of the 15 reporting local school districts in the region had measurable gains in the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program administered in February.
For the third consecutive year, reading scores were flat statewide, with 73.3 percent of the 63,245 third graders tested ranking proficient or advanced. Last year's statewide average in the same classification was 73.9 percent.
The TCAP replaces the CSAP and determines how close to grade level students are performing and how well the districts are teaching. The reading tests in particular are considered a predictor of students' performance in upper grades. Educators also have identified reading proficiency as the key to success in other courses. Statewide TCAP scores for upper grades and for other subjects will be released in late summer.
Cheyenne Mountain D-12 had the best scores in the region for third-grade literacy and the highest among larger school districts in the state, with 91 percent of students scoring proficient and advanced. That was a drop of five points compared to 2012 but still well above the state average.
Last year's results, at 96 percent, were 'uncharacteristically high, ' said Superintendent Walt Cooper.
'Over the last seven years, we've averaged 91 to 92 percent (proficient and advanced), so this last round is an expected performance level for us, ' he said.
TCAP is just one assessment tool the district uses to determine literacy rates, he added.
'We take TCAP seriously, but we don't get hung up in the total scores because in groups our size, just a few kids can swing the average numbers significantly, ' Cooper said. 'We look at the classroom and student levels to see if we're getting the kind of growth and achievement we need. '
Among the 15 local districts that recorded scores, seven fared worse than last year.
Falcon District 49 dropped 4.6 percentage points overall, yet its score of 78.4 percent is 5.1 points above the state average. Scores for the 14 elementary schools ranged from 68 percent to 84 percent of students scoring proficient and advanced.
'Our schools are working to continually improve student achievement, ' said D-49 spokeswoman Stephanie Wurtz. 'Over the course of four years, third-grade reading scores for our district are up 2 percent, and we've maintained relatively consistent achievement scores. '
D-49 saw a slight gain in third grade reading scores for students with special needs and English language learners. Wurtz said the district credits 'intentional professional development focused on more inclusive practices ' and 'identifying individualized learning strategies to meet the specific needs of students. '
Four districts remained relatively flat, including Colorado Springs District 11, the largest in the area with about 28,000 students.
'We came within 1 percent of the state (average), as we did last year, so our trend exactly mirrors the state, and our students remain on par with Colorado third graders, ' said Jeanice Swift, D-11's assistant superintendent for instruction, curriculum and student services.
The number of D-11 elementary schools scoring 90 percent proficient or advanced proficiency increased from three to five this year, she noted. Four of those - Columbia, Buena Vista, King elementary schools and a charter school, Academy For Advanced and Creative Learning - achieved their all-time best marks, Swift added.
In all, eight D-11 schools attained their highest scores, she said, and one school that has a significant percentage of students living in poverty - Columbia - advanced from 91 to 95 percent advanced or proficient reading.
'An intentional instructional design around enriching literacy for children ' is what helped push the school to its highest competency, Swift said.
The Charter School Institute's three elementary schools showed little gain, up 1 percentage point this year over last year.
Miami Yoder JT 60 posted the biggest improvement in the region. The rural district's third graders gained 27 points to 83 percent scoring proficient and advanced.
The scores are the best in the elementary school's history, said Superintendent Richard Walter.
A combination of hard-working and experienced teachers who have embraced a team approach and efforts of the students and parents contributed to the steep jump, he said.
'It takes time to become familiar with programs and curriculum, and that time is beginning to show up in the results, ' Walter said. 'Our staff has worked for years to develop a sound educational team in the elementary grades. Our teachers are seeing that these third graders are meeting their reading goals. '
All 19 elementary schools in Academy District 20 had proficient and advanced percentages above the state average, although the district-wide average was down 1.1 percentage point over last year.
The district's proficiency levels have been 'remarkably consistent ' for the past five years, varying between 86 percent and 87 percent, according to Clark Maxon, director of assessment.
Harrision School District 2 and Ellicott D-JT60 also are claiming success in this round of testing. Harrison, which six years ago was on state academic probation, this year has its highest third-grade reading scores. Seventy-six percent of D-2's third graders were proficient or advanced. One of the schools, Centennial Elementary, received a 90 percent, 12 points above last year.
'I'm excited. But I was not surprised to see the 76. We are doing dynamic things to make sure kids are learning, ' said Superintendent Andre Spencer.
The district, where the majority of students are impoverished, has instituted numerous innovative and at times controversial programs, which are starting to pay off, he said. It was the first in the state last year to retain third graders who could not read well enough to advance to fourth grade. The district three years ago put in place Colorado's first pay-for-performance plan, making teachers more accountable for their students' success, and providing more teacher training and support. The goal is to eventually not retain any students.
In the classroom, students are reading more texts focusing on in-depth critical thinking.
'We won't rest until we have 100 percent proficient and advanced, ' Spencer said.
Ellicott School District JT 60 had a gain of seven points to 69 percent proficient or advanced, after the board hired a new superintendent and named a new elementary school principal. Ellicott's third grade reading scores had dipped as low as 47 percent proficient and advanced three years ago. The district has been mired in controversy in recent years, including an unsuccessful recall efforts by a group who wanted to get rid of three reform-minded board members who, among other actions, hired the new leadership.
The new superintendent, Patrick Cullen, praised his staff and administrators for the TCAP effort. 'This is exciting. We have been talking achievement since day one, ' he said. 'We have a long way to go but we are moving up the hill. '
Ellicott Elementary Principal Joe Torrez explained that the school has aligned teacher training to instruction in the classroom. The school also is using more data to analyze each student's academic skills, he said. With the new superintendent, Torrez said, achievement goals have been heightened and the staff is enthusiastic and goal-driven. 'This is the first step in the process to meet or exceed the state average. We are on our way. '
SCHOOL DISTRICTS (COMPARED TO 2012)
Fountain-Fort Carson D-8
Ellicott JT 60
Cheyenne Mountain D-12
Manitou Springs D-14
Peyton 23 JT
Cripple Creek-Victor RE-1
Woodland Park RE-2
Colorado Springs D-11
NON-REPORTING DUE TO TOO FEW STUDENTS
Edison 54 JT