Colorado high school students had big drops in math scores. Is the new digital SAT to blame?

Desks fill an empty classroom.
Matt Rourke/AP, File
Desks fill a classroom in a high school on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Colorado students took a new version of the PSAT/SAT that was fully digital in 2024.

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By Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat

Most Colorado students continue to make progress on state tests, with scores nearly recovering from dropping after the pandemic. That’s according to preliminary data previewed for the State Board of Education in June.

But one area of concern is that high school math scores were significantly lower than in previous years as the state transitioned to a new digital PSAT and SAT.

Ninth grade scores seem particularly concerning. In 2019, 49.6% of ninth graders met or exceeded math standards on the PSAT. In 2024, just 39.5% did — a difference of more than 10 percentage points. The 2024 rate also represents a significant decrease from 2023, when 46.5% of students were meeting expectations.

Ninth graders were in fifth grade when the pandemic began and would have been in sixth grade, possibly starting middle school, in the fall of 2020 when school was largely held online.

State officials said they are spending the summer analyzing the data to see if they will still be able to use it for annual school ratings. The board voted to allow accountability officials to possibly set new cutoff targets for each performance level, based on this year’s distribution of scores, instead of using the same points as in previous years.

“What we’ve discovered is this is really a new assessment,” said Lisa Medler, executive director of accountability and continuous improvement for the state.

The PSAT/SAT Colorado uses to test all ninth, 10th, and 11th graders, and also is used as one way of demonstrating English and math proficiency for graduation requirements, was changed for the spring of 2024. It was the first time the test was fully online. The test was also reformatted.

Initially, state officials believed the changes wouldn’t affect the meaning of scores compared to previous years, but now, after seeing such a large drop in the number of students who met standards on the test in math, officials suspect it might have to do with the tests. But they’re not sure how much was difficulty with the tests or how much students may be struggling with math.

“I cannot disentangle those changes in terms of what caused those changes,” said Joyce Zurkowski, the Colorado Department of Education’s chief assessment officer. “Some of that is indeed due to changes in student performance, but some of that is due to a change in test.”

In the lower grades, which take the state’s CMAS test, the results don’t show students struggling as much. Among third through sixth grade students, the percent meeting or exceeding math standards is now at or above the 2019 pre-pandemic rates.

But eighth grade CMAS math scores are still behind. In 2019, 36.9% of eighth graders met or exceeded math standards. In 2024, preliminary data shows just 32.9% did, a slight increase compared to 32.7% in 2023.

Apart from the changes to the PSAT/SAT, officials are also looking at how an increase in the number of students new to the country this year could also have affected the average scores.

This spring, the state exempted more students than usual from taking the tests, but new immigrant students who did not have interrupted schooling were still expected to take math and science tests, with accommodations. Their scores will not count for school ratings but could be affecting the state’s overall test averages.

State officials are auditing the data to finalize it and are studying if it can be used in growth calculations and for other purposes in annual school ratings. An update about the findings might come later this month.

State officials said that other states are also finding significant score decreases with the new PSAT/SAT, but not all states use the test for all students or for accountability purposes.

In the meantime, as students are receiving their own scores, state officials want students and families to know the changes to the test itself could be playing a role.

“So, 11th grade students: if your senior sibling is giving you a hard time because they scored better than you on math, tell them to go take the new assessment and then you can have the conversation,” Zurkowski said.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected].