State test scores flat, achievement gap won’t close for decades

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(Photo: CPR/Jenny Brundin)
Photo: High school hallway

There are pages and pages of data to mine during the annual August ritual.

Half a million Colorado students took the TCAP tests last spring in reading, writing, math and science. Scores are broken down into every possible category - for example, students who don’t speak English, students of Pacific Islander heritage, or 11h graders in Aspen. But overall, TCAP scores this year are largely flat, continuing a trend of the previous several years.

“Overall, students are making gains," said Jill Hawley, Associate Commissioner of Achievement and Strategy with the Colorado Department of Education, "but it’s important to note that these gains are not sufficient if we are to going to ensure that all of our students are college and career ready.”

Just under 70 percent of Colorado’s students are reading at or above grade level, up a hair from last year while about half are writing proficiently, up one percent. In math, there was about the same progress, and about 56% of students are on target. In science, for the first time ever, a tad over half of all students are meeting expectations.

The big talk this year, though, was the gaping achievement gap between whites and minorities. In her presentation to the state Board of Education, CDE’s Joyce Zurkowski said Hispanic students are are making gains, but slowly.

“They are closing the gap compared to our white students, and they’re doing that at about one percentage point per year,” said Zurkowski, the department’s Executive Director of Assessment.

The gap is still massive. This year 80% of white students were proficient at reading, compared with 52% of their Latino and black peers. State board members noted that, at the pace of improvement, it could take a generation to close the gap.

“I think the fact that it could take potentially up to 30 years to really narrow this achievement gap is a very frightening thought,” said state board member Elaine Gantz Berman.

Other board members said they weren’t surprised at the slow progress, since schools are basically teaching students the same way they always have. Education officials are pinning their hopes on a new, more challenging, and hopefully more engaging, curriculum starting this year. Van Schoales of the education watchdog group A+ Denver says that’s not enough. He says, to see what works, one should look at the handful of Denver schools that have made radical changes.

“Often those schools have longer school days, they have longer years, they have more personalized attention for kids,” said Schoales. “They track kids in terms of their growth academically, weekly and monthly, they have much closer relationships with the child’s guardian or parent. There’s some very basic things that we know.”

Many of these things are happening at the so-called “turnaround” schools in northeast Denver, even though the shake-ups were controversial when they started two years ago. Some turnaround schools saw their scores drop this year, but most posted gains, and they helped DPS lead the metro area in academic growth, a measurement that compares students with their peers who’ve gotten similar test scores in the past. Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the results prove the turnaround plan is working.

“At the middle school level you’re seeing between 15 and 20% more kids at grade level in sixth and seventh grade than you saw two years ago,” Boasberg said.

The district is trumpeting the accomplishments of one high-poverty, high-minority school in particular. The Denver School of Science and Technology in Green Valley Ranch is a new school, created as part of the turnaround movement. It now has the state’s highest growth score in math. You have to look beyond Denver, though, to the San Juan Mountains, to find the highest performing districts in academic growth. Ouray and Silverton got the gold stars in that category.