Colorado test scores improve, hinting at a pandemic recovery

Colorado students’ performance in math and literacy is starting to rebound to levels not seen since before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools three years ago, according to new data released by the state Department of Education Thursday.

But significant achievement gaps continue to persist statewide among demographic and other groups, most notably among English language learners, according to the latest Colorado Measures of Academic Success test scores.

Another disparity has also emerged: Boys’ test scores appear to be recovering more quickly than girls’, a trend that puzzled state education officials.

“It’s very good we are seeing the rebound for boys, but we need a better understanding of what is happening with the girls in the state,” said Colorado Education Commissioner Susana Córdova.

The news that Colorado students’ test scores are approaching pre-pandemic levels is not only good news but also in contrast to how children are performing nationally.

Students’ math and reading performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal standardized exam, has fallen to the lowest point in decades, reported The New York Times.

Colorado educators made a push to improve math scores after noticing a drop in CMAS results in 2021, with officials at districts in Jefferson and Douglas counties saying their schools increased instruction time, improved curriculum, provided training for staff, and turned to tutoring to help children.

“We’re incredibly proud. We’re proud of our kids. We’re proud of our amazing educators,” said Superintendent Erin Kane, noting that Douglas County School District saw the percentage of students who met or exceeded grade-level expectations surpass pre-pandemic levels.

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State and district officials praised the efforts by Colorado’s educators to get pupils back on track, but acknowledged that there is still more work to be done, including improving the achievement gaps among different groups of students.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Education also cautioned that while the results are encouraging, they would like to see performance growing at a higher rate than it did this year.

“It’s actually very encouraging and worth some celebration,” said Lisa Medler, the agency’s executive director of accountability and continuous improvement. “Students – they’re making some recovery, however, they’re quite not there.”

While there are hints of a faster recovery in math scores, some of the improvement is also due to the fact that there was a more significant drop in performance, added Joyce Zurkowski, chief assessment officer for the department.

Student participation similar to last year

CMAS tests are offered to children in grades 3 to 8. Children who score at least 750 on the exams are considered to have “met or exceeded expectations,” a sign that they are on the path to being college or career ready, according to the education department.

The tests cover math and English Language Arts. Schools also give tests in science, but fewer students take those exams. High schoolers take the PSAT and SAT.

This year’s CMAS results offer a second year of data on how children in third to eighth grade perform in math and English Language Arts compared to pre-pandemic years.

The state canceled testing in 2020 because the rapid spread of the coronavirus forced schools to close and move to remote learning.

The next year many children opted out of the tests, which were also not given to every grade level so some educators questioned whether the data was useful and Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, disregarded the results altogether.

Student participation in CMAS tests this year was similar to that in 2022. Still, fewer students took the tests than in 2019.

More than 92% of third-graders, fourth-graders and fifth-graders took the math and English Language Arts tests this year. By comparison, at least 96% of the students in those grades took the tests four years ago.

A smaller percentage of middle schoolers took the tests compared to younger students, with participation ranging from 79% to 89.9%. That’s down from a participation range of 88.7% to 94.9% in 2019, according to the education department.

Improvement in math

Only one grade saw test scores improve from 2019 results. More fifth-graders – 36.5% – met or exceeded expectations in math this year compared to those who took the test – 35.7% – four years ago.

At the same time, the largest drop in students testing as proficient also occurred in math, with the percentage of seventh-graders who “met or exceeded expectations” dropping 5.3 points from 2019, according to the education department.

Students are rebounding more consistently in math than in English language arts, according to the agency.

Fifth- and sixth-graders did almost as well in English language arts as students in 2019, with the percentage of pupils who tested as proficient down by less than 1 percentage point compared to four years ago, the data shows.

Overall, 47.8% of fifth-graders and 43.4% of sixth-graders “met or exceeded expectation” this year, according to the data.

Students in grades 4 and 8 saw the largest declines – more than 4 percentage points – over the four-year period, with 43.8% and 42.4% of pupils, respectively, meeting or exceeding expectations in literacy.

The education department said it has invested about $6.7 million in ESSER –  Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief – money into tutoring, summer and after-school programs, and math curriculum through September 2024.

“Persistent and troubling gaps”

Wide gaps remain between students from low-income families and those from wealthier families and between white children and students of color.

For example, students who took the Spanish Language Arts tests saw a bigger drop than their peers in proficiency compared to 2019. The percentages of third- and fourth-graders who “met or exceeded expectations” fell 8.8 points and 4.9 points, respectively.

By comparison, third-graders who took the test in English only saw a 1.4 percentage point drop from 2019, while fourth-graders saw a 4.2 point drop.

Colorado is seeing “persistent and troubling gaps that will indicate that some students are not achieving at the level we need them to do,” Córdova said.

At DPS, test scores among students who qualify for free or reduced lunches didn’t rebound as much as other demographics, which is a sign of how much the pandemic has affected children living in poverty, said Deputy Superintendent Anthony Smith.

“There’s a lingering effect from the pandemic that has yet to rebound across all demographics and subgroups,” he said, while noting that districtwide CMAS results didn’t come in where DPS officials wanted.

Schools have struggled with chronic absenteeism among students and staffing shortages since the pandemic, Smith said.

“We understand we have to do better,” he said. “We saw some positive momentum but we still haven’t reached pre-pandemic levels.”

A higher percentage of girls “met or exceeded expectations” in English language arts than boys. But their scores were lower compared to 2019 levels across all grade levels. By comparison, three grades saw more boys score as proficient than they did four years ago.

Boys in grades 3 and 5 also performed better in math this year than in 2019, with a higher percentage of them meeting or exceeding expectations. And boys in the sixth grade did as well in math as sixth-grade boys did in 2019.

Across grade levels, a lower percentage of girls  “met or exceeded expectations” in math compared to four years ago, according to the data.

State education officials were unsure why girls’ test scores were not recovering like the boys’, but Cordova noted that teen girls reported struggling more with their mental health, including feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and suicidal ideation, at higher rates than boys during the pandemic.

“Something is going better for our boys,”  Zurkowski said. “Something is not going right for our girls.”

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