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Colorado’s first TCAP scores show small gains, writing dip, growth

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Small statewide gains and a couple of curious declines marked the inaugural 2012 results of TCAP — the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program — that, for the most part, continued a flat performance trend from the CSAP test it replaced.

But when it came to academic growth — measuring students’ year-to-year improvement — some encouraging data emerged, notably in the Denver Public Schools, where massively revamped schools posted significantly improved numbers.

Green Valley Elementary, a turnaround school in far northeast Denver, posted the highest gains in the district but also ranked in the top 10 of all schools statewide in math growth.

That was only one facet of growth data that bolstered the highly contentious DPS move to reinvent schools in the far northeast, as well as in west Denver. In fact, DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg spoke enthusiastically about growth that spanned all types of schools — district run, charter, turnaround, innovation — and continued a largely upward trend.

“We’ve gone from a time when we started the Denver Plan seven years ago when our growth was at the bottom,” he said. “Not only were our kids behind, but every year they were falling farther and farther behind. And these last three years we’ve had the most growth of any district of size in our state.”

Boasberg also noted that “striking achievement gaps” remain in his district and “we’re extraordinarily aware of how far we have to go to close them.”

Amid positive results for DPS, the cheating scandal at Beach Court Elementary came home to roost with scores that plummeted in virtually every subject at the low-income school — in some cases dozens of percentage points lower than the number that scored proficient or advanced in 2011.

The introduction of the TCAP comes amid the state’s transition to common core standards in reading, writing, math and science. It will be replaced by a new set of tests in reading, writing and math after the 2013-14 school year, and by a new science assessment next year.

Scores on TCAP, which was given to about 490,500 students, are comparable to CSAP in all areas except science scores prior to 2007.

In statewide, year-to-year performance data, Colorado students posted slight gains across all grades in reading; drops in five of eight grade levels in writing; small bumps in five of eight grade levels in math; and slim gains in fifth- and 10th-grade science sandwiching a small decline in eighth grade.

“This reinforces the fact that there’s a lot of things the state has been doing, a lot of talk and noise around education reform, but all those things together haven’t really been moving the needle,” said Van Schoales, CEO of the reform group A+ Denver.

But he also singled out Denver for its academic growth numbers.

“DPS was pretty impressive in some of their improvements, in particular in writing in contrast to the state,” Schoales said. “I think this in general supports the district in some of the reforms they’re implementing.”

In the Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s largest district, officials were pleased with their growth in math and the general growth among elementary schools, but disappointed that some earlier gains faded.

“We feel we didn’t hold our gains last year and didn’t sustain them,” said Jeffco superintendent Cindy Stevenson, speculating that the district may have moved too soon, and too aggressively, in changing its curriculum to align with the common core. “We’re going to look at that. I don’t know whether we taught our kids what they needed for the test.”

Among metro area districts, the median growth percentile that charts student growth lagged in the Adams 12 district but rose above the benchmark of 50 — sometimes well above — in Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Adams-Arapahoe 28J, which includes the Aurora Public Schools. Jeffco lagged only in writing, with a median growth percentile of 49.

Statewide, smaller schools scored some of the biggest growth numbers. Peetz Junior-Senior High School led the way in reading with an MGP of 97, and also posted the highest writing growth at 99.

In math, Montview Math & Health Sciences Elementary scored 91, just ahead of West Denver Prep – Highland Campus at 88.5.

Despite many gains by black and Hispanic students who scored proficient or advanced on the tests, the state continues to battle “persistent and unacceptable” double-digit performance gaps compared to white students, said Jo O’Brien, the state’s assistant commissioner of standards and assessment.

But she also noted some bright spots on the district level.

Thirty districts showed statistically significant increases in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading, including Granada, Haxtun, North Conejos, Salida and Sheridan.

Four made that distinction in writing: Salida, DPS, Westminster 50 and Adams-Arapahoe 28J. In math, seven districts including Cheyenne Mountain, Brighton and Harrison posted significant increases; in science, 13 districts including Prairie, Keenesburg and Trinidad posted similar progress.

Westminster 50, a turnaround district, was the only one to show statistically significant increases in the number of students scoring proficient or advanced in all four academic areas.

Colorado high schoolers produced a barely perceptible uptick in the composite ACT score, raising it to 20 from last year’s 19.9.

Although statewide writing scores were down in many grades, one of the more striking numbers was the precipitous drop in fourth and sixth grades. While fluctuations from 2011 CSAP scores generally hovered near 1 or 2 percentage points, writing in grades 4 and 6 tumbled 6.4 and 5.8 points, respectively.

The statistics raised the question whether this year’s decline is an anomaly — or whether last year’s historic high scores since 2005 constitute the outlier. Or whether something in the new test produced skewed results.

The state department of education delayed release of the test results until it could do a deeper analysis — and when it’s examination turned up no flaws in the test design or data, it called in a national expert to verify the results.

It found the design and data accurate.

The lower statewide writing numbers were reflected in many individual districts, even those that traditionally score well.

At the Cherry Creek School District, both fourth- and sixth-grade writing scores dropped nearly seven points, prompting the district to take a closer look, said spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

“While you might see this kind of thing happen at a school or grade level,” she said, “I don’t recall seeing anything as universal as this before this year.”

Jeffco’s Stevenson noted that the district was thrilled with last year’s big bump — and then shocked by this year’s drop, which precisely mirrored the lower statewide numbers.

“When we looked at the writing scores, we first thought, ‘This is devastating,’ especially since schools all had a focus on writing,” she said. “My greatest concern was keeping principals and staff motivated, given all the work they’d done. But as I’ve had time to process this, I do think there was some kind of anomaly in grades 4 and 6.”

CDE’s O’Brien advised districts to take a longer view of the trend data rather than to put too much emphasis on this year’s decline.

Kevin Simpson

Click here to see the Top 10 Colorado schools for growth.

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  • comment avatar Tarun August 9, 2012

    I am disappointed with the quote from the JeffCo superintendent about teaching kids “what they needed for the test.” We need to teach children what they need for life, not a standardized test.

  • comment avatar Todd August 9, 2012

    This is why I’m paying for my son to go to private school. Most of these kids that have a high school diploma can’t hardly read or write. The schools just move you along, regardless of how much you know.

  • comment avatar Stephen August 9, 2012

    As a statistical thinker, I’d expect flat. My null hypothesis would be no change. There are limits to what we can “teach.” There are no limits to what a child can learn but we somehow think pushing information at them supports that. It does not. Put arts, music, debate and other subjects that engage brains back in the curriculum. STEM is important, thinking vastly more so.

  • comment avatar Lauren August 9, 2012

    These tests are an absolute joke. Members of my family are teachers and know first hand that the majority of these kids do not try on these exams. In fact, they think it’s funny to make patterns on the answer sheets. The reason they don’t try- there are no consequences if they do poorly…. NONE! It’s a sad day when school funding and teachers’ livelihood are contingent on these exams that are required to measure “progress”. These tests are extremely flawed and inaccurate. The state and for that matter our entire country needs a revamp in standardized testing!

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