Newly released state test results measuring students’ academic growth show strong progress for Denver Public Schools in English, slow going for Aurora Public Schools in math and a potentially alarming achievement gap for students with disabilities statewide.
Unlike earlier math and English results that showed students’ proficiency in meeting academic standards, Colorado’s growth report measures how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers. The information, which is the primary component of a school’s and district’s quality rating, is often heralded as providing a more complete picture of how much students, especially those who are less likely to be proficient on state tests, are faring in school.
Put simply, the growth numbers provide a picture of how students are progressing and how fast compared to their peers, not taking into account where they are proficiency-wise.
“If we can take our most struggling kids as far as they can go, and the highest (performing) kids who don’t get the attention they deserve as far as they can go, we’re succeeding,” said Leslie Nichols, superintendent of the tiny rural Hinsdale School District in southwest Colorado. Hinsdale students posted higher growth rates in English than any other school district in the state.
In 2009, Colorado began using the growth measure, which relies on results from the state’s English and math standardized tests, to supplement basic achievement data.
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. School and district growth rates, which make up the greatest share in their quality ratings, are determined by the median growth score from all students in that school or district.
Tuesday’s release marks the end of a multi-year transition from the state’s previous testing system, TCAP, to its current system that includes PARCC English and math tests.
Because of the transition to new tests, Colorado neither released growth data nor school quality ratings last year. While hiccups remain, state education officials say confidence is growing in the exams and the data they provide. But members of the State Board of Education last week signaled they were prepared to upend the entire system all over again.
“We’re glad to have a growth metric again,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability. “We believe it provides a really important dimension to understand the quality of a school to go along with achievement.”
State growth results
The state’s median growth percentile is always about 50. Groups of students, schools and districts that have a percentile score higher than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers. Conversely, a percentile score lower than 50 means on average students are learning at a slower rate than their peers.
Hitting the 50 mark represents about a year’s worth of academic growth.
Like under the old system, growth gaps exist between the state’s white students from middle-income households and their more at-risk peers. The gap between students with disabilities, those with individualized education plans, and their non-disabled peers was the largest on the state’s English and math tests. The gap between boys and girls also grew, state officials acknowledged, with girls learning at a faster rate.
Only English language learners demonstrated equal growth to their native-English speaking peers on the state’s English test.
While state education officials called attention to the yawning gap between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities, officials were hesitant to prescribe cause.
“I don’t know if we can jump to conclusions yet,” Pearson said. “But it’s important to make it visible.”
Similar gaps did not exist with other student groups, including English learners and low-income students.
Growth results from Colorado’s 10 largest school districts were mostly in line with the state’s. Denver Public Schools posted the highest growth rate on the English tests, while the Adams 12 Five Star district posted the highest growth rate on math tests.
Aurora Public Schools posted the lowest growth rate on the state’s math tests. APS also tied the Douglas County School District for the lowest rate on the state’s English tests.
Like previously released achievement data measuring how well students are meeting academic expectations, state officials cautioned growth results had less reliability at schools with low participation rates.
Tracking growth in high schools was made more difficult by state lawmakers eliminating PARCC 10th and 11th grade tests last school year, leaving only 9th grade growth data.
To get a full picture of high school performance requires looking at PARCC in 9th grade, the PSAT in 10th grade, the ACT in 11th grade (and starting this academic year, the SAT) and some measure of postsecondary readiness for 12th graders, said Chris Gibbons, CEO of the Denver-based STRIVE Prep charter school network.
“It’s important our view of the performance of a high school – of any school – is informed by the entirety of the school and not just a single grade,” Gibbons said.
Tracking growth in math in higher grades also poses challenges — and in some circumstances, it’s impossible. Starting in the seventh grade, students may take any one of five math tests. Students who took math tests two grade levels higher than their actual grade level did not have growth results in math, said Pearson, of the education department.
Nichols, superintendent of the Hinsdale County School District in Lake City, has long been awaiting the state’s release of growth data.
“I’ve been holding my breath for this release of data,” she said, adding that her schools usually has too few students to publicly disclose achievement results.
Hinsdale posted the state’s highest median growth percentile on the English test. On average, the 32 students who took the state’s English test learned at a quicker rate than 82 percent of their academic peers.
Nichols immediately credited her teachers.
“Their expertise in writing and reading instruction is obviously shining through in these results,” she said.
Unlike some other rural superintendents who have been vocal critics of the PARCC tests, Nichols said she and her school district value the critical data the multi-state tests provide.
“I really need that connection to the larger world of education,” she said, adding another change in assessment would prove difficult for her small school district. “I could not do [standards and testing] by myself. I could not write my own. I get tired of everyone saying local is better all the time. It’s OK to measure my kids against something a little bigger.”
Find your school and district’s growth rate
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the Adams 12 Five Star district’s growth rate on the math tests. It is 55, making it the highest growth rate of the 10 largest school district’s in the state. An earlier version reported Cherry Creek had the highest rate.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.