data dump

Colorado state test scores inch up, but wide socioeconomic gaps remain

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
A student and teacher work at STRIVE Prep Federal in 2017. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Three years after Colorado introduced new, more demanding standardized tests, student performance statewide is slowly ticking up, according to data released Thursday.

Most students still are falling well short of meeting the state’s expectations on the PARCC math and English tests, which are meant to measure whether students are on track to be prepared for life after high school.

But state officials applauded progress: 42 percent of students who took the tests last spring met the state’s learning goals in English, and 33 percent met them in math. That’s an increase of about 2 percentage points in both subjects since 2015, the first year the tests were given.

The state’s poorest students continue to academically lag behind their more affluent peers by wide margins. The gaps remain wide — some as large as 30 percentage points — and are generally not tightening because all students are making progress at about the same rate.

Only 27 percent of Colorado fourth-graders who qualify for subsidized meals at school met grade-level expectations on the English test, while 58 percent of their more affluent peers made the grade.

“We are pleased to see performance improvements by so many students across Colorado, and we know this only comes after a lot of hard work and dedication from educators, parents and students,” Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “At the same time, our focus on our historically disadvantaged students must remain a top priority. In too many cases, those groups are not showing gains at a pace that will allow them to catch up, so CDE will increase our focus on providing support to our districts and schools to help them with this challenge in the next few years.”

Those results were part of a trove of student testing data released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Education.

Besides achievement data from the state’s English and math tests, the department also released results from its science and social studies tests, and the PSAT and SAT tests that high school sophomores and juniors take. Additionally, the state released student growth data, which measures how much students learn during an academic year compared to other students who scored similarly to them on tests the previous year.

Results for individual students are shared with families, and collectively the state uses them to rate school quality. Some districts use the results in evaluating teachers — one reason the tests are controversial.

About 555,000 students between the third and 11th grades took state tests last spring.

On PARCC, participation rates ticked up slightly and ranged from 96.4 percent in the third grade to 76 percent in the ninth grade statewide. Since Colorado began giving the exams in 2015, schools especially in affluent suburbs and rural areas have struggled to meet a federal requirement of testing 95 percent of their students.

This year’s results were released earlier than in past years, and more data was released at one time. One criticism of PARCC has been how long it’s taken for results to be available.

Data transparency activists, however, are sure to cringe at array of school level results that won’t be made public due to ongoing concerns about student privacy. More than 20 percent of the results released from PARCC exams were redacted to ensure the public cannot identify an individual student’s results.

The state does this by following a complex set of rules that is set off if fewer than 16 students at a school score in a particular range. Before the state adopted these rules, it would only redact results if fewer than four students had the same score at a school.

Find your school’s PARCC scores
Search for your school’s PARCC scores in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“The new tests were supposed to provide better information about what is working and now we know far less,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education watchdog group. “It’s outrageous that CDE has arbitrarily hidden so much of the achievement data making it difficult to know whether schools or districts are working. Only through knowing what works will Colorado educators be able to improve our schools.”

There are other limitations to what the state releases. Ninth-graders can take PARCC math tests of varying degrees of difficulty. That, along with lower student participation rates on 9th grade tests, make comparisons next to impossible. This will be the last year that issue arises: This spring year, all 9th graders will take a version of the PSAT.

In fact, Colorado is beginning a transition away from PARCC tests in all grades starting this year.

District achievement results

Officials in the state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, were celebrating its positive test results.

The 92,000-student district, which serves a majority of low-income students, inched closer to meeting state averages on the tests. The number of students who met the state’s proficiency bar on the state’s English test climbed in every grade. Math results were more mixed. Scores went up on six of the state’s 11 tests.

Aurora Public Schools, the only school district at risk of facing state intervention next year if its quality rating doesn’t improve, showed increases in the number of students meeting or exceeding expectations on several tests across multiple grades including big increases for eighth-grade English tests and fifth-grade math.

But among the state’s ten largest school districts, Aurora continued to post the lowest scores. For example, only 25 percent of fourth graders in the 41,000-student district met the state’s expectations on the English test.

Which kids took which test?
Third through ninth graders took the PARCC English and math tests; fifth, eighth and 11th graders took the state’s science test. And fourth and seventh graders from sampled schools took the state’s social studies exam. Tenth graders for the second year took the PSAT 10 and 11th graders took the SAT as the state’s college entrance exam for the first time.

Progress was also mixed at school districts that serve large at-risk student populations and have a history of chronic low performance on state exams.

More detailed district and school-level data is expected within a month that will detail achievement gaps between different student groups, state officials said.

Growth

A student’s growth percentile, which ranges from 1 to 99, indicates how that student’s performance changed over time, relative to students with similar performances on state assessments. Put another way, growth is calculated by measuring how students progressed compared to students who had similar scores to them on tests given a year earlier.

This data, which makes up the majority of a school’s or district’s state quality rating, helps provide a better understanding of how students are progressing, not accounting for whether they are proficient.

The state average growth score is always at the 50 percentile, so any growth score above that is considered positive. A score of 50 represents about a year’s worth of learning.

As with achievement scores, the state’s poor students are behind their more affluent peers in academic growth. Students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunches hit the 48th percentile on English tests and the 46th percentile on math. Students that don’t qualify hit 52nd percentile on English tests and 53th percentile on math.

Students in Denver continued to post strong academic growth scores, leading the state’s five largest school districts in that measure.

Find your school’s growth scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“Every year for the past seven, in every subject, our kids have shown more growth than their peers across the state,” said Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “This year was our best growth year ever.”

Meanwhile, students in the wealthier south suburban school district of Cherry Creek fell below the state average on growth on English tests, according to the state data. While other nearby school districts were closing growth gaps between their poor and more affluent students, the gap on English tests in Cherry Creek widened by a point.

Judy Skupa, Cherry Creek’s assistant superintendent, said the district will spend time analyzing its growth data but won’t rush to make sweeping changes based on one year of data.

“Like with anything else, it’s about the trend,” she said.

– Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.