Students in Colorado Springs and across the state had been making gradual progress in English and math over the past few years before suffering a setback due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Colorado Department of Education data.

Colorado Measures of Academic Success test scores show incremental improvement from 2014, when CDE first began administering the test, up to 2019. In 2014, 39% of students “met or exceeded expectations” in English language arts, and 29.6% did so in math. By 2019, those averages had improved to 44.5% and 32.7%, respectively.

CMAS testing was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic and was renewed the year after that.

In 2021, the gains students had been making reversed, with the average statewide declining to 43% for English and plunging more steeply to 27.4% for math.

Colorado Department of Education officials caution that any review of last year’s scores must take a number of factors into account. Participation rates plummeted statewide, from 94% in 2019 to 64% in 2021. In the Colorado Springs area, participation dropped from 95.3% in 2019 to 73% in 2021.

Also, “last year, students took a limited number of tests,” said CDE spokesman Jeremy Meyer. “Specifically, third, fifth and seventh graders took the English language arts tests and the fourth, sixth and eighth graders took the math tests.”

Still, the 2021 numbers appear to reflect what many educators and families have been saying since the pandemic began: Most students learn better when they’re able attend school in person, and some are still recovering academically from the coronavirus.

“After the worst of the pandemic, we learned that some kids did not recover as quickly as others,” said Sherry Kalbach, District 11’s interim deputy superintendent of achievement, learning and leadership. “The pandemic continues to have an impact on many students.”

“Although we thought the first year of the pandemic was the worst, it wasn’t until 2021-22 we truly felt the impact,” said Academy School District 20 spokeswoman Allison Cortez. “When we returned last year, we became very aware that some students were, indeed, behind academically.”

Data suggest that students have rebounded in reading and writing more quickly than they have in math. Statewide, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding literacy standards dropped less than 2 percentage points, from 44.5% in 2019 to 43% last year. In math, the average decrease was more than 5 percentage points, from 32.7% to 27.4%.

Colorado Springs-area students averaged a 7-percentage-point drop in English and a 9.9-percentage point dip in math.

Educators say that students have gotten closer to pre-pandemic levels in reading and writing faster, because those disciplines require skills that most children have been building on for years. Conversely, math instruction often involves learning new skills each year, which many students found challenging during the height of the pandemic. Also, many students read recreationally, while few students practice math problems for fun.

“New content and skills are introduced each year, such as fractions in second and third grade, followed by long division in fourth grade,” said Rachel Laufer, Harrison School District’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. “Due to missing many months of regular instruction, students must now work on foundational skills before closing the gaps to performing at grade level.”

“On the contrary, reading and writing are disciplines where the standards don't necessarily change dramatically yearly; they just deepen in scope and complexity,” Laufer said. “Thus, students had years of experience with each standard before the pandemic, so they could fall back on that previous knowledge upon returning to school after COVID.” 

D-2 had the sharpest decline percentage-wise in English scores, with 32% of its students meeting or exceeding standards in 2021, a 10-percentage-point drop from 2019. Widefield School District 2 took the hardest hit in math, going from 31.9% to 15.6%.

Smaller districts fared better than larger districts, according to CDE data. From 2019 to 2021, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, which serves about 3,800 students, lost fewer than 2 percentage points in English and only dropped 4 percentage points in math, making it the highest-performing district in the state. It also had the region’s highest participation rate in 2021, at 83.7%.

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Manitou Springs School District 14, which has approximately 1,400 students, was the only school in the region that saw a percentage increase. About 53% of its students met or exceeded English standards in 2021 — a 10-point rise from 2019.

Superintendent Elizabeth Domangue said the uptick in English scores is due in large part to an instructional strategy called "7 Steps to a Language-Rich School District." Based on a text titled "7 Steps to a Language-Rich Interactive Classroom," the initiative has been used in all four Manitou Springs schools and has been paying rich dividends, Domangue said.

“Also, I think we just have really great teachers who make learning exciting and fun,” she said.

District 20 was the eighth-highest performing district in the state, state data show. D-20's English scores only fell 2 percentage points, from 62% to 60%. Math scores suffered a steeper drop — nearly 9%.

District 49’s scores took a relatively modest hit — dropping 6.4 percentage points in English and 9.5 percentage points in math — but its participation rate was far and away the lowest in the region, plunging from 96% to 40.4%.

D-49 spokesman David Nancarrow told The Gazette that district leadership did not go out of its way to encourage CMAS participation in 2021.

"Colorado’s partial test/partial pause compromise was not valuable to our district so we were intentionally low-key and did not promote participation," Nancarrow said. "In 2022, with a full slate of tests and data available, we did advocate for participation, and most of our grades and subjects approached pre-pandemic levels."

Taking into account 2021’s limited sample size, less-affluent students appear to have experienced less of a decline than their peers, according to CMAS data. On average, the percentage of free lunch-eligible students who met or exceeded state expectations in English actually increased, from 39.9% in 2019 to 41.7% last year. Noneligible students’ scores remained consistent, at about 59% for both years.

In math, free lunch-eligible students had less than a 3% decline, going from 21.7% at or above standards in 2019 to 18.9% in 2021. Non-free lunch-eligible kids went from 42.3% to 35.8%.

District leaders and educators did acknowledge that thousands of area students are struggling to regain what they lost during the pandemic, but would not speculate on COVID’s impact on achievement scores before the 2022 test results come out later this month.

Several districts have employed programs and strategies to support students who are struggling with what educators call the “COVID slide” of learning loss. D-11 launched its voluntary Summer Bridge program to meet a specific need as educators identified which kids continued to struggle post-COVID and tailored summer instruction to meet their needs.

Widefield School District 3’s Summer Engagement Academy, launched last year, offered more than 70 classes on a wide variety of disciplines including playwriting, floor installation, painting, cooking and rocketry as a fun, engaging way to boost students’ skills.

D-20 developed a number of initiatives to help with the academic, social and emotional impact of the pandemic, including expanded summer school (with reduced tuition), literacy tutoring and counseling support.

“We were faced with developing initiatives to help address learning loss, as well as the increased social and emotional needs of our students,” Cortez said. 

Time will tell if these initiatives will have a direct impact on achievement scores, but Colorado Springs-area educators said they plan to take a hard look at this year's results and adjust their programs — or create new ones — as needed.

“The Pikes Peak region is committed to a strong response moving forward, to meet students where they are, based on the scores returned from CMAS this spring, and to help them grow and have the skill sets they need to thrive,” the Pikes Peak Area Superintendents’ Association said in a recent statement.

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