Significantly fewer Colorado students tested as proficient in math and reading this spring than they did in the pre-COVID era, but the combination of more kids opting out of the tests and last year’s unprecedented learning experience means it’s difficult to tell how much ground schools may need to make up.
The biggest drops in scores on this year’s Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests were in math, according to results released Thursday. The percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” fell by about five percentage points in fourth and sixth grades, and by more than seven percentage points in eighth grade, compared to 2019.
In the previous three years, the largest drop was one percentage point.
The state compares this year’s students in a particular grade to those who took the test for the same grade in previous years, not to their younger selves, so the numbers can’t say if specific students forgot skills or fell behind during the pandemic.
The declines were more modest in the CMS reading and writing scores. The language arts proficiency rate for third graders fell about two percentage points, while it was down about one percentage point for fifth graders and nearly four percentage points for seventh graders. Pre-pandemic, scores in language arts had been slowly rising.
What Colorado teachers, administrators and state officials will do with the 2021 results is an open question, as is whether they can be seen as an accurate gauge of learning loss during a school year that saw many students alternating between the classroom and remote education as the virus flared.
Fewer students took the tests than in a typical year, and they took it under unusual circumstances, leading some to question if the results provide any useful information. Denver Public Schools has already announced it will essentially disregard the scores.
It’s not surprising that math scores fell further than reading scores, said Floyd Cobb, executive director of the Colorado Department of Education’s teaching and learning unit. Kids can somewhat improve their reading abilities on their own, but most people don’t learn new math skills unless someone teaches them, he said.
In language arts, scores were in line with how students performed three to five years ago, said Joyce Zurkowski, the department’s chief assessment officer. It’s difficult to compare math scores over time because of changes to how the test was given in 2019, she said.
“If we can accelerate learning, then we can get back to our historical levels more quickly,” she said.
Reading and writing scores on the PSAT and SAT actually rose slightly, though math scores fell. Fewer students took the tests than in a typical year, however, so it’s possible that those who chose to were more interested in college than those who didn’t.
Do scores tell anything useful?
The numbers confirmed that all students struggled, as many predicted, Zurkowski said. While the results come with many caveats, they provide a baseline for measuring how students recover over the next few years, and may be useful in deciding how to support schools as they catch students up this year, she said.
“What this indicates to us is that we can look at the 2021 results with confidence that students are performing at a lower level,” she said.
Not everyone agrees that the results give much useful information, though. Lorrie Shepard, a professor who studies how tests are used or misused in education, said the results aren’t reliable because of low participation, and they may be used to justify counter-productive plans, like excessive drilling on material from last year. It’s especially concerning if the state uses test scores to decide where to send federal stimulus money, she said.
Other education researchers are working with the state on more valid ways to judge how much students learned over the past year, Shephard said.
“This is why we argued against going ahead” with the tests, she said.
In a normal year, more than 90% of students in third through eighth grade take the CMAS tests in math and English language arts. This spring, students in the odd-numbered grades were tested on language arts, and the even-numbered grades were tested on math. Participation fell as students got older, with about three-quarters of third graders taking the tests, but only 58% of eighth graders doing so.
Black, Hispanic and multiracial students were less likely to take the tests, as were students from low-income families, those with disabilities and those learning English as a second language. Students in those demographic groups also had, on average, larger drops compared to similar students who took the tests in 2019.
Students of color and those from lower-income families were more likely to have parents who were working frontline jobs and to struggle with barriers like technology access, Cobb said.
“If you look at the communities that were more impacted by the virus, it stands to reason that their students would be most affected,” he said.
The state didn’t collect data about how many days schools were operating remotely, so it’s not possible to tell if students who spent more time learning virtually had lower scores.
The tests measure the same content they would in a normal year, so it isn’t surprising that scores would be lower when classes were disrupted and some districts may have covered fewer units, Zurkowski said. It’s also possible that coming back into the classroom after spending much of the year at home may have thrown off some students, she said.
Where do schools go from here?
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes called for “accelerated” learning as the new school year begins, and said federal stimulus funds would support efforts to catch kids up.
“If we just go back to doing what we have done before, we will not be successful,” she said in a news release.
It’s not clear how seriously districts will take their individual results, which are expected to be released in about a month. New Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero told The Denver Post last week that he didn’t put much faith in the scores, saying the district would run its own assessments throughout the year. The results may be less informative for districts in the Denver area because fewer students there took the tests than in other parts of the state.
“We’ll soon learn where we are,” Marrero said.
The Legislature ordered that the state’s accountability “clock” be paused for a second year, meaning the tests have lower stakes than usual. Schools and districts with low test scores and graduation rates still will have to submit improvement plans, but the Colorado State Board of Education can’t order them to take more drastic steps, like hiring an outside manager or converting into charters.
Parents who were surprised by their children’s lower scores should keep the difficult conditions of the last year in mind, and talk to their teachers about how to complete “unfinished learning” and move forward, Zurkowski said.
To catch kids up, the best thing is to integrate some of the skills students tried to learn last year into this year’s units, where they make sense, Shepard said. For example, if an upcoming unit requires that students have a solid grasp of how to add fractions, it makes sense to go back over that, while making clear why it’s important both for the upcoming lessons and for understanding the world, she said.
“You have to help make these connections,” she said. “Let’s do something to lift up and enrich the opportunities for the kids who’ve been most affected.”
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