college ready — or not

SAT scores show mixed results on whether Colorado juniors are on track for college

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

About six in 10 Colorado high school juniors are on track to be ready for college-level English classes, while only four in 10 are for math courses, according to state data released Thursday.

That is according to results of the SAT college entrance exam, which Colorado requires juniors to take. The results are used to hold schools and districts accountable for their performance.

Colorado eleventh graders scored an average of 513.4 on the SAT’s English exam — 33 points above the test-maker’s cutoff for college readiness, state data show.

The picture was bleaker in math: The average score was 500.9, and the college readiness score is 530. Colorado students on average perform better in English than in math on state tests in lower grades, too.

As with other tests, achievement gaps emerged. The state’s poorest students — those who qualify for government-subsidized meals — scored an average of 462 on the English test and 451 on the math test. Their more affluent peers scored more than 70 points higher on both tests.

The state publicly releases average scores as the benchmark for SAT performance. At Chalkbeat’s request, state officials also provided the percentages of students who are on pace to be prepared for college courses — 61 percent in English and 40 percent in math.

An education department spokesman said officials are still working on figuring out how particular student groups fared, including different racial and ethnic groups, and breaking down results by subsidized lunch status.

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The SAT numbers serve as a new baseline in Colorado. Juniors took the SAT for the first time in 2017 as a mandatory state test. Previously, juniors took the ACT. The state’s average ACT score hit an all-time high of 20.4 points in 2016, the last year it was administered by the state.

The state’s switch to the SAT followed an overhaul of the testing system after thousands of families boycotted the state’s participation in the multi-state PARCC exams.

State officials switched to the SAT in part because the recently redesigned college entrance exam is supposed to be more closely aligned to the state’s academic standards. Those grade-level learning targets are supposed to prepare students for life after high school.

While students can use the results as part of the college applications, the state uses the data to rate school quality, and some districts use them in teacher job performance ratings.

This was the second year high school sophomores took the PSAT, a companion test to the SAT also created by the College Board.

The state’s average score — which combines results from the math and the English test — climbed by nearly 4 points to 947. That’s 14 points higher than the national average. The highest score possible on the PSAT is 1520.

About 67 percent of sophomores are on track for being ready for college English work and 43 percent are on track for college-level math work.

Next year, high school freshmen are expected to take another version of the PSAT for the first time. That’s the result of a hard-fought compromise between state lawmakers who wanted to ditch testing in the ninth grade and Gov. John Hickenlooper, who threatened to veto any such effort.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.