An empty classroom.

(Photo: Flickr/Ajari)

Test scores plummeted for the online science and social studies exams Colorado students took last spring.

But education officials say the falling scores were expected because the tests were new and reflected higher academic standards.

Students in four grades in elementary and middle school took the new online science and social studies exams, called the Colorado Measures of Academic Success or CMAS.  Science was assessed in grades 5 and 8 while social studies was assessed in grades 4 and 7.

In science, only about a third of the elementary and middle school students scored in the top two categories, meaning they’re at grade level or above. Under the old TCAP exam, about half of students were at grade level or above.

But education officials say results from the two different tests can’t be compared.

“It is important to keep in mind that these new expectations and the scores are not an indication that our students know less than they used to know, it is instead a reflection of our increased expectations for our students,”  said Joyce Zurkowski, director of assessment at the Colorado Department of Education.

The first-time ever social studies exams showed only 17 percent of kids are on track.

The Colorado-developed standards were adopted in 2009  They set higher expectations with the goal of getting students on track for college. Some districts may not have fully implemented the standards until recently and this is the first time tests have assessed students on those standards. 

Performance is now classified in four different achievement levels: Distinguished command, strong command, moderate command and limited command.  The top two levels indicate a student is on track to being ready for college and work. Those will replace the previous statewide test (TCAP) classifications of advanced, proficient, partially proficient and unsatisfactory.

“So for proficient and advanced under TCAP, it was more of a ‘what is good enough’ for our students,” Zurkowski.  “With CMAS, the expectation is, ‘is the student on-target, on-track for being college and career ready.”

Achievement gaps persist

Wide achievement gaps between white students and students of color persist under the new tests.

For fourth grade social studies, 6 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 7 percent of African-American students have strong or distinguished command of the subject. That compares with 24 percent of white students and 28 percent of Asian students.

For seventh grade social studies, 6 percent of Hispanic, Latino, and African-American students ranked strong or distinguished, while 22 percent of whites and 34 percent of Asian students did.

In fifth grade science, 15 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 13 percent of African-American students scored in the strong or distinguished category, compared to 44 percent of Asians and 46 percent of whites.

In eighth grade science, 16 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 14 percent of African-American students have strong or distinguished command of the subject. That compares with 43 percent of white students and 47 percent of Asian students.

Scores narrow between charters, traditional schools

The lower scores will be a wake-up call for both parents and schools, particularly charter schools.  

In  Denver public schools in science, Slavens K-8 had 80 percent in the top two categories but did not break out scores by grade.

For middle schools, the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) Stapleton Middle School was tops in eighth grade science with 72 percent of students in the top two categories. But the school was an outlier. The next closest was Denver School for the Arts with 62 percent of students on track in science. 

The traditional neighborhood Morey Middle School, with 44 percent of students in the top two categories, far out-paced many charter schools in science. For example, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy posted only 23 percent of its students in the strong and distinguished categories and the STRIVE Prep charter schools ranged from 11 to 28 percent in the top two categories.

In social studies, the top middle school was McAuliffe International School with 42 percent of students strong and distinguished. Meanwhile, neighborhood middle schools Morey, Hamilton and Skinner produced higher numbers in the top two categories than all STRIVE Prep charter schools and all DSST middle schools except DSST Stapleton.

“This is what we anticipate when you raise the bar,” said CDE’s Janelle Asmus.  “That not everyone is going to be able to meet that new higher level straight out of the chute.”

Next steps

CDE’s assessment director Joyce Zurkowski says districts and schools need to ask themselves these questions as they reflect on the relatively low scores in both science and social studies:

  • How often are students engaged in social studies and science activities?
  • How often are students engaged in reading and writing with science and social studies content?
  • How often do students engage with primary sources, for example, original written work like maps?
  • How often do students engage in activities that require them to synthesize across multiple sources? (Social studies items require students to use between four and six different sources to answer questions.)
  • How often do our students engage in scientific investigation?

More information for parents

On report cards, parents will now be able to see how their child performed in comparison to the average for the school, the average for the district and the average for the state.

Next spring, all Colorado students in grades three through 11 will take new online tests in language arts and math.