The big takeaways from Colorado’s latest school testing data

Test scores from the latest round of state standardized tests give schools reasons to celebrate and to worry: For every bright spot of progress, there are signs of struggle as Colorado students work to overcome the academic challenges brought on by the pandemic, which roiled classrooms for two years.

Results in math and English language arts given in April show a mixed picture of students accelerating and still falling short of mastering grade-level standards, according to data the Colorado Department of Education released Thursday morning, when State Board of Education members reviewed the assessment outcomes.

Among the most significant points of improvement: Elementary school students are performing better in math, a subject that has drawn statewide and even legislative attention as kids have broadly struggled to reach grade-level proficiency in recent years. In English language arts, higher percentages of students in fifth, sixth and seventh grades are meeting or exceeding grade-level benchmarks than in 2022. And on the reading and writing portion of the SAT, a slightly higher percentage of students scored high enough to be considered ready for college when comparing data to test results from 2019.

Colorado measures achievement — whether students are hitting grade-level expectations — and growth, which gauges how much progress students have made over time. The state education department also reported that students are making academic progress on a pace that resembles 2019, but students need to make more progress to fully close the gap.

Still, many students of color and students who are from low-income families, have a disability or are learning English are not meeting grade-level expectations, extending achievement gaps that persisted long before the pandemic.

“We need to double down on addressing the historic gaps between different groups of students,” Colorado Education Commissioner Susana Córdova said during a media briefing Tuesday afternoon. “That’s been a priority for a long time, but we really need to focus our support and resources on students who need it the most. We certainly are seeing those persistent and troubling gaps that will indicate that some students are not achieving at the level that we need them to do.”

April marked the second consecutive year that Colorado students took state standardized assessments in a way that was consistent with testing cycles in the years leading up to COVID. Kids in third through eighth grades took state standardized tests — called the Colorado Measures of Academic Success — in English and math. Students in fifth, eighth and 11th grades were tested in science. Ninth and 10th graders took the PSAT exams, and 11th graders took the SAT.

Participation rates in the tests were similar to the rates recorded in 2022 and still lagging 2019 rates. Similar to 2022, participation was particularly low among eighth graders in English, math and science, with less than 80% of students taking the assessment in all subjects. Participation in the science exam among 11th graders was so low — just under half of students took it — that the state education department cannot rely on the data to understand how all 11th graders are performing in science.

Here are three key takeaways from the past school year’s round of testing. For a deeper dive into statewide results, and outcomes in individual schools and districts, click on the exploratory map here, created by the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center for The Colorado Sun. You can sort through results dating back to the 2018-19 school year and study outcomes specific to different student groups.

Many students are making gains in math but many others remain behind

After students across Colorado and the country continued to struggle with math proficiency, Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado lawmakers spent part of this year’s legislative session designing legislation to funnel more math-geared resources and support to teachers, students and parents. The legislation promised more than $25 million for extra teacher training in evidence-based math strategies and for an academic accelerator grant program that will develop community learning centers where students can access tutoring outside school hours.

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Some students are already making strides in math. For instance, every grade that took the CMAS exam saw a higher percentage of students meeting or surpassing grade-level math expectations than in 2022. Meanwhile, third, fourth and fifth graders nearly matched or outperformed students in 2019, according to state data. 

Fifth graders made particular headway in math, with 36.5% of students meeting or exceeding expectations in 2023, compared with 35.7% in 2019.

“We’re seeing some cases of faster recovery,” Chief Assessment Officer Joyce Zurkowski said during the briefing Tuesday. “Some of that is just due to the fact that there was a more significant drop, so there’s more room to go in terms of going back up.” 

She added that schools and districts noticed the dips in math during the pandemic and ramped up their efforts “to remediate those lost learning opportunities.”

Hover over this interactive map to see how students in grades 3-8 performed in math this year at individual schools and districts. (Created by Keystone Policy Center and The Colorado Sun)

Some older students are also inching in the right direction. Among the ninth graders who took the PSAT in math, 46.5% met or surpassed expectations this past spring, compared with 40.8% in 2022.

However, many students still haven’t caught up to achievement levels of 2019, including seventh graders, who modestly improved compared with test scores from 2022 — with the percentage of kids who met or exceeded expectations climbing barely more than 1 percentage point to 26.3%. In 2019, 31.6% of students met or exceeded expectations.

High schoolers who took the SAT math test also aren’t recovering as much ground, with 35.2% of students reaching or achieving higher than the college readiness benchmark, compared with 39% of students in 2019, state data shows.

Education experts like Wendy Ward Hoffer applaud Colorado students’ progress in math but are equally concerned that the majority of kids still aren’t fully grasping math concepts.

“We really need to continue to invest more in supporting our teachers, providing high-quality professional learning to them, creating an abundance of supports beyond the classroom for students,” said Ward Hoffer, senior director of content development and publications for the Denver-based nonprofit Public Education & Business Coalition. “There’s still so much more work to do.”

She fears people have grown complacent around kids’ consistent struggles with math, even though math achievement early on in high school directly correlates with students’ chances of graduating.

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“It’s not something to shrug our shoulders at,” added Ward Hoffer, whose organization works with teachers, schools and districts across the country to expand high quality instruction.

Both Ward Hoffer and Keri Gordon, a first-grade teacher at Doull Elementary School in Denver, say there is an urgent need to change attitudes and squash what they see as a widespread stigma attached to math.

Gordon, who previously taught math to third graders and has also taught teachers about the best ways to deliver math lessons, is hopeful that more students can excel. She said she has watched her students blossom in math when she homed in on what lies at the core of the subject — problem-solving — rather than pushing them to memorize mathematical equations and functions. Her students learn by asking their own questions, tackling math concepts through conversations with one other and taking time to understand the meaning behind their work.

Gordon also notes that test scores tell only one part of a student’s story and don’t capture all the learning and successes they’ve experienced leading up to test day. “I don’t think it includes everything the child is capable of doing.”

A woman tapes a paper to a gigantic pad of paper that says "What do mathematicians do?"Download Image
Image Name: 20230817_Keri-Gordon_Doull-Elementay_06-1200x801.jpg?resize=780%2C521&ssl=1
A woman writes students names on papers.Download Image
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A woman tapes a paper to a gigantic pad of paper that says "What do mathematics do?"Download Image
Image Name: 20230817_Keri-Gordon_Doull-Elementay_06-1200x801.jpg?resize=780%2C521&ssl=1
A woman writes students names on papers.Download Image
Image Name: 20230817_Keri-Gordon_Doull-Elementay_08-1200x801.jpg?resize=780%2C521&ssl=1

First-grade teacher Keri Gordon prepares her classroom for the new school year Thursday at Doull Elementary School in Denver. This year will be Gordon’s 19th year teaching. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Boys are recovering faster in school than girls

Data from spring assessments also points to boys generally rebounding more quickly in math and English than girls.

Boys recovered more academically than girls in nearly every CMAS grade and subject, the state education department reported. While girls had higher percentages of students meeting or exceeding benchmarks in English, they still didn’t catch up to proficiency levels from 2019. More male students in three grades met or surpassed expectations than in 2019: 43.7% of fifth grade boys met or exceeded expectations in 2023, compared with 43.3% in 2019; 39.5% of sixth grade boys met or exceeded expectations in 2023, compared with 37.6% in 2019; and 39.6% of seventh grade boys met or exceeded expectations in 2023, compared with 38.5% in 2019. 

“We recognize that we need to learn more about the disparities that we’re seeing between the performance of our boys and girls across the state,” Córdova said. “It’s very good news that we’re seeing the rebound for boys, but we need to have a better understanding of what’s happening with girls in the state and to devote more focus and support so that we can see acceleration, both in achievement and in growth for all our students.”

Córdova noted that national research has indicated that girls across the country have suffered more with depression and anxiety during the pandemic, but she said she is reluctant to blame mental health challenges for girls’ slower academic momentum.

“It’s hard to say that’s the reason why we’re seeing lower performance with young women than we are with young men,” Córdova said, “but I think it’s something that is going to be important for us to continue to monitor.”

Longtime achievement gaps are persisting coming out of COVID

Significant gaps in academic performance among different groups of students have continued as the pandemic has waned, affecting students of color as well as students who face additional challenges in school, whether they are learning English, have a disability or are from a low-income household.

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State data shows a difference ranging from about 24 to 31 percentage points between the share of white and Black students who met and exceeded expectations in math and English. The gap between white and Hispanic students runs from 25 to 31 percentage points.

Those differences are “very significant,” Zurkowski said, noting that achievement gaps aren’t necessarily growing but have persisted throughout the pandemic.

Similar differences set apart other student groups. For example, the difference between the percentage of low-income students who met and exceeded expectations in math and English and their more affluent peers ranges from about 27 to 35 percentage points. The state defines low-income kids as those who qualify for free and reduced lunch, a federal marker of poverty.

Hover over this interactive map to see how students from low-income households — those who qualify for free and reduced lunch — in grades 3-8 performed in math this year at individual schools and districts. (Created by Keystone Policy Center and The Colorado Sun)

Low-income students attending Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, are showing greater deficits after historically performing slightly better than their peers across Colorado: In math, 32.5% of low-income students in DPS did not meet grade-level expectations, compared with 29.8% of students in poverty statewide. In English language arts, 26.1% of low-income DPS kids did not reach grade-level expectations, compared with 24.1% of kids in poverty statewide.

“We had these gaps before the pandemic, and in some cases, in some districts, those gaps have grown since the pandemic,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center. “And I think the most distressing thing is that we’re not seeing gaps close now that we’ve been investing a great deal of resources to close them. It’s possible that it’s too early, but we’re not seeing any evidence right now of closure at least on the systemwide level.”

Schoales criticized DPS leadership for not placing enough of a priority on student achievement.

But Anthony Smith, deputy superintendent of schools for DPS, said the district has experienced academic growth, with elementary and middle school grades overall earning slightly above average growth in math and literacy.

“That’s a positive sign for us, that we are going in the right direction, but … we have a ton more work to do,” Smith said.

Smith said “lingering effects from the pandemic” are slowing the academic progress of low-income students.

“We have to do a little bit more to make sure we get them what they need,” he said. “It’s a more inconsistent population in some respects.”

Offering additional resources to those kids is critical, he said, as education is the most reliable path out of poverty for many of them. Those resources include a range of tutoring and academic support programs for DPS students — online, after school, in the summer and even on Saturdays. 

Schoales hopes to see districts and state leadership take more initiative in combing through the new assessment findings to figure out where Colorado is seeing success with students — and what’s behind that success.

“We have the tools, and we have the data to be able to figure out what’s working and what isn’t,” Schoales said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2023, to correct Wendy Ward Hoffer’s name.

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