Colorado Student Test Scores Come In Low, As Expected

July 16, 2015

Brace yourselves, parents. The first set of scores for exams Colorado students took last spring were released Thursday and they are, to be frank, low. 

But fear not. Low scores were expected because it's only the second time students have taken the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, exam. It replaces the TCAP and CSAP tests of yesteryear. 

Here are eight things to know about the new test scores:

1. The release only covers science and social studies

We won’t get to see scores for math and English until the fall. Thursday's science and social studies scores are based on new, more rigorous academic standards.

The science and social standards aren't the same as the Common Core standards you may have heard about -- those are for math and English. New standards had to be fully implemented by the 2013-14 school year.

Science tests are only given to kids in fifth and eighth grade, and social studies is assessed in fourth grade and seventh grade. 

Use this tool to find your school's test score data. The story continues below.

2. Scores are up slightly from last year

Compared to last year alone, scores show some good news. With the exception of eighth grade science, scores in science and social studies increased across the state. The number of students scoring in the top two categories went up 4.8 percentage points in fourth grade social studies, 1 percentage point in seventh grade social studies, and by 1.2 percentage points in fifth grade science. 

They went down in eighth grade science by 3.5 percentage points. 

3. Colorado students are not on track in science and social studies

The number of students who are proficient overall is low. There are four proficiency levels: distinguished command, strong command, moderate command and limited command. If students get in the top two levels, it means they’re on track for college or a career after high school. 

In science, 34.8 percent of students are at or above grade level (in the top two categories). In eighth grade, 29.0 percent are at or above grade level. In social studies, 21.8 percent of fourth graders are on target, and for seventh graders, even fewer - 17.6 percent - are where they should be. 

4. Officials expected low scores 

The state Department of Education and the many groups that pushed for tougher standards argue that these results are a more honest and rigorous snapshot of how students are performing. They are also more in line with what national tests show about Colorado kids. These test results also can’t be compared to how students performed on the old TCAP and CSAP state standardized tests.

"It would be an apples to oranges comparison to use these tests to compare to the old TCAP and CSAP," said Dana Smith, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education. "These are new tests, they measure new things, more complex problem solving skills that students will need to be successful in college and career."

Here’s an analogy: If you’re training for the high jump and are jumping around 5 feet 5 inches but suddenly raise the bar to 6 feet – you won’t immediately sail over that higher bar. Education officials hope that in five years, third graders who have been learning under these more rigorous standards will perform at much higher levels than they are now.  

5. Gaps in scores between ethnic groups are still very wide 

In fifth grade science, about 48 percent of white and Asian students performed at or above grade level. Students who classify themselves as being in "two-or-more-racial-groups"  scored within 8 percentage points of whites and Asians. Only about 15 percent of blacks and Hispanics performed in those top two categories. 

In eighth grade, Asian students were the top performers, with 45.4 percent placing in the “strong” or “distinguished” category, followed by White students (39.7 percent), and students of two or more races (35.5 percent). Fewer black (11.7 percent) and Hispanic (13 percent) students are on target.

In science, compared to last year, scores are down for all ethnic groups except one: Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. 

In social studies, Asian students scored the highest in fourth and seventh grades (33.6 percent and 34.9 percent respectively). In fourth grade, white students (30.2 percent) and students of two or more races (28.2 percent) were the next top performers. Similarly, white students (23.5 percent) and students of two or more races (21.6 percent) were the next top performers in seventh grade as well. Roughly 8 to 9 percent of students in both the black and Hispanic subgroups achieved strong or distinguished command in fourth and seventh grade social studies.

The gap between students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and those who don't qualify is still very wide. In science, it’s between 28 and 34 percentage points and for social studies, between 19 and 24 percentage points. 

6. High school seniors who opted out of social studies and science tests last year made an impact

Thousands of 12th graders opted out of the tests last fall, arguing they were already burdened with Advanced Placement exams, ACT college entrance tests and other final projects. State lawmakers voted recently to scrap the 12th grade science and social studies tests. Students will still have to take social studies and science once in high school, but officials haven't yet decided in which grade. Initially, it looked like lawmakers were ready to eliminate social studies all together. In the end, fewer students will take social studies CMAS tests – just students in about one-third of schools – once in elementary, once in middle, and once in high school. 

7. Not all students will get to see their scores

Seniors who took the science test will get their scores later this summer. But the Colorado State Board of Education has prohibited the state Department of Education from releasing school and district-level results to the public. For social studies, the board did not approve what are called "cut scores" – the scores that determine whether a student is proficient or not – so nobody can get results on those tests. 

Once teachers have the scores, they'll use them to make adjustments to what and how they teach. Because both the test and standards are so new, the scores won't be used to evaluate teachers' performance this past school year. 

8. Denver metro-area districts saw mixed results 

This table shows the percentage point change in students at or above grade level between the 2013-14 an 2014-2015 school year.

District5th grade science8th grade science4th grade social studies7th grade social studies
Adams 12 Five-Star+ 1.9- 4.2+ 6.4+ 0.8
Jefferson County

+ 1.8

- 5.9

+ 6.5

+ 0.1
Denver+ 2.4- 2.4+ 3.6+ 3.8
Adams-Arapahoe 28 J

- 1.1

- 1.5+ 1.6+ 0.6
Boulder Valley RE 2+ 2.8-2.4+ 6.5+ 0.6
Cherry Creek 5+ 0.3-3.0+ 6.2+ 0.7
Douglas County+1.3-1.7+ 4.5+ 2.2

Bonus: The most extreme changes across the state

Asbury Elementary in Denver had the largest gains in science scores in the state among its fifth graders, jumping 36.6 percentage points. The steepest drop for that group was at Ute Pass Elementary near Pikes Peak, dropping 41.8 percentage points. 

In social studies, the Global Village Academy in Fort Collins saw a 38.9 percentage point drop in scores in fourth grade social studies. The biggest jump in fourth-grade social studies scores was 42.9 percentage points at Eisenhower Elementary school in Boulder.