the scores are low

Room for improvement in science, social studies test results

The results are in for Colorado’s brand-new science and social studies tests, and they may give teachers and parents some pause.

Only about a third of fifth and eighth graders scored in the two highest levels on science tests, and 17 percent of fourth and seventh graders scored at those levels on social studies. The social studies tests are brand-new, and the science results are lower than those on last TCAP science tests in 2013 – which aren’t comparable to the new tests.

The results are seen as a preview of how scoring likely will sort out after new language arts and math tests are given next spring in grades 3-11.

(See the chart below for a breakout of the statewide results, and search this Chalkbeat Colorado database for results by school and district.)

The science and social studies results were in line with what Department of Education officials had indicated to the State Board of Education in August, when the board signed off on cut scores for the tests (see story).

Chart

Anticipating public concern and confusion about the results of new tests, CDE officials have been stressing for months that results of the science and social studies tests – and next year’s tests – aren’t comparable to what came before.

“These new standards did set higher expectations; they definitely are more challenging,”  Joyce Zurkowski, CDE director of assessment, told reporters at a briefing prior to Monday’s release of the results. “The cut scores are more rigorous than we’ve had in the past.”

A CDE document is more detailed about why scores may not be what some people think they should be:

“Because the new standards reflect higher expectations, fewer students are meeting or exceeding expectations. Some students who previously met or exceeded standards now show the need for improvement. However, these new expectations do not mean that students know less than they did before or that they are less capable than they were in previous years. Instead, we are simply expecting more of students going forward to show their progress toward college and career-readiness.”

Everything about the tests is new

Statewide social studies tests were never given in Colorado before last spring, and the science tests are significantly different from past TCAP and CSAP science exams. Here’s a breakdown of what’s changed:

Academic standards – Standards are the broad descriptions of what students are supposed to know and do at various grade levels to be considered academically proficient. (Curriculum is the is bundle of lessons, readings, exercises and teachers talking that is used to teach the standards, and choice of curriculum is up to local districts.) The new standards adopted by the state in 2009 are intended to set a bar that ensures every student leaves high school ready for college or careers. – See a description of the science standards here and of the social studies standards here.

Who took tests

  • 64,064 students took 4th grade social studies
  • 62,719 7th graders
  • 64,341 5th graders took science tests
  • 61,459 8th graders

Test trivia

  • The two tests are unique to Colorado, while next year’s PARCC tests are multistate and based on Common Core
  • All four sets of tests are produced by Pearson
  • Science tests are required by NCLB, but social studies in only a Colorado requirement

Test content – These aren’t your old multiple-choice “select-the-capital-of-Vermont” tests. There are multiple-choice items, but students also are asked to do things like read passages of text and interpret them.

Taking the tests – The social studies and science tests were given online last spring, as language arts and math tests will be given next spring. (There will be paper-and-pencil options for districts.) So students have to move screen to screen, check answers by clicking on them, type text into boxes and move objects around on the screen. – Use the links on this page to view and take sample tests.

Scoring the tests – The “cut scores” used to classify students at different levels of proficiency of course are brand-new for social studies and different than they were for the old science tests.

Sorting out the kids – Remember “advanced,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “unsatisfactory”? Those were the categories used to classify student results on CSAP and TCAP, with the combined percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced used as a key marker of school and district performance. Those labels are gone. In their place are “distinguished command,” “strong command,” “moderate command” and “limited command.” – Learn what those descriptions mean for fifth-grade science, eighth grade, fourth-grade social studies and seventh grade.

The results

In science, 34 percent of fifth graders were in the top two categories, compared to 32 percent of eighth graders. The percentages in the moderate and limited command categories were very comparable in the two grades.

(Results of the 2013 TCAP science tests showed 48 percent of fifth graders were proficient or advanced and 52 percent of eight graders.)

“We were not surprised at what we saw in the science scores,” based on the experience of other states that have changed tests, Zurkowski said.

In both fourth and seventh grade social studies, 17 percent of students scored as strong or distinguished. Only 2 percent of fourth graders were distinguished, compared to 4 percent of seventh graders. But only 32 percent of the elementary students scored at limited command, compared to 45 percent of seventh graders.

Zurkowski said CDE really didn’t have an expectation about social studies because such tests aren’t required in most other states.

Parents will receive individual reports for students that will also break out how students did on individual parts of the tests, such as physical science, life science and other categories on that test.

Scores show familiar patterns

Scores on the two tests showed achievement gaps based on income and ethnicity that echo those recorded for several years on CSAP and TCAP tests.

Achievement gap graphic

Asian students did the best in social studies, with 28 percent of fourth graders in the top two categories and 34 percent of seventh graders. The percentages for white students were 24 and 22. The percentages of Hispanics students scoring distinguished or strong were 6 percent in both grades. For blacks they were 7 percent in the fourth grade and 6 percent in seventh.

In science, 44 percent of Asian fifth graders scored distinguished or strong, compared to 47 percent of eighth graders. The percentages for whites were 44 and 47, for Hispanics 15 and 16 and for blacks 13 and 14.

“There is not an increase in the gaps.” Zurkowski said, adding, “It does appear that our females have caught up with our male students in science.”

Girls did between 2 and 5 percentage points better in distinguished and strong in social studies and 1 point better at both grade levels of science.

Lessons for districts & schools

“Schools and districts are going to have to do a little self-examination” in light of the results, Zurkowski said.

Chart of largest districts

“We are encouraging schools and districts to examine what their social studies programming looks like. …Perhaps social studies has not been focus” in the past, when it wasn’t tested statewide,” she said.

This year’s test results won’t be counted as part of district and school accreditation ratings – only whether districts met the 95 percent student participation requirement.

High school seniors will take the two tests next month, with the results available sometime next spring. It will be the first time that 12th graders have had to take statewide exams.

appropriate instruction

Special education in tumult as Adams 14 faces resignations, parent complaints

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District, speaks to parents at a forum April 17, 2018. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Just weeks from the end of the school year, Ed Collins found out that his 7-year-old son was not getting all the instruction he was supposed to get to address his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Collins said the school in Adams 14 owed his son 18 days of instruction. Much of the time lost was due to suspensions that were contrary to his child’s special education plan, he said.

Likewise, Samantha Ochoa recently found out that her son, a freshman at Adams City High School, is failing all of his classes. Under a plan to address his learning disability, Ochoa said, the school owes him 650 hours of instruction.

The two parents’ stories are among many in the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City, which has had a tumultuous year with special education. A mass midyear exodus of top administrators and teachers has led to confusion at schools, a rotating crew of substitutes, gaps in services, and students not getting the education and support they need.

According to federal law, students who are identified with special needs must receive appropriate help so they can learn. Legally, schools must follow those students’ individualized education plans, although complaints don’t often go to court.

Javier Abrego, the superintendent of Adams 14, a district under a state plan for turnaround, and school principals refused to discuss the issues parents raise. To protect student privacy, school officials generally do not comment on the cases of individual students. But in a prepared statement, Abrego wrote that the district is “not aware of any IEP non-compliance concerns” – even though people have raised issues at school board meetings and during a community meeting earlier this month.

The silence of the district administration is a change for a district whose previous special-education staff was dubbed “the dream team.”

“They were able to take a situation, whether it was brought to them by the parent or someone else and say, ‘let’s figure this out,’” said Paula Christina, a child and family advocate for ARC of Adams County, a nonprofit that helps families of special needs children. “You don’t always have that collaboration and skill set with all the districts.”

“It really saddens me to see how things have fallen apart,” Christina said. “Something is not working at the top level at the administration.”

Instead of responding to parents’ charges, district officials have highlighted efforts to teach students at some schools social and emotional skills. But one principal said that while the work is beneficial, it doesn’t help students with severe needs.

The staffing problems in the district have, as of April, included administrators. The district’s director of student services – who oversees special education – resigned, leaving for an assistant director job in Denver. On the next tier, three special education coordinators who help schools create and troubleshoot plans for students with special needs also resigned and will leave at the end of the school year.

Many special-education teachers also have left, although officials would not provide numbers. Anecdotally, other administrators, teachers, and union officials say it has been a bad year.

According to a roster of special education teachers still working in late April, two elementary schools had just one teacher left, although the schools also have paraprofessionals.

Hanson Elementary School, where the district’s records show there are 50 students on special needs plans, has one teacher certified to teach special education. Rose Hill Elementary, which has 60 students with special needs plans — including some in a program for students with severe needs from across the district — also had just one teacher as of April, down from three at the start of the year.

That has led to a succession of substitutes filling in.

At Rose Hill, Collins said that his 7-year-old’s classroom teacher has helped his son a lot, but his assigned special education staffer is always changing, something that is particularly rough for his son.

“They’ve been using substitutes,” Collins said. “He doesn’t like change. I’m a single parent. His mom’s gone and his older sisters are with their mom. So he thinks that everybody that cares about him leaves him.”

Families say change is difficult for many children with special needs.

Because special education teachers are considered a hard-to-staff position across the country, many teachers and parents worry about filling so many positions by next school year.

Superintendent Abrego’s prepared statement notes the district is “exploring all options, including incentives to attract special education professionals to the district.” A spokesman also said the district will reconsider appropriate staffing levels once a new director of student services has been hired.

One change that has already been planned is to move the special needs program from Rose Hill to Central Elementary school next year in an effort to get more space and to pool resources of both schools special needs programs.

Apart from staffing, parents and teachers claim there are also problems in the district’s process for identifying students who have special needs, and then gaps in serving them.

Ochoa’s son at Adams City High School, for example, went through most of the school year with teachers unaware that he had a plan for his special needs and needed accommodations, she said.

“They kept assuring me everything was good,” Ochoa said. “That they were modifying his work. But they weren’t.”

The district recently offered Ochoa’s son a one-on-one tutor to help make up the instructional time, but it will likely go into the summer. Ochoa said her son is weary of the plan.

“He tells me, ‘Mom, I feel stupid, I just want to drop out,’” Ochoa said.

Other parents and teachers point to gaps in services for students with severe emotional or social needs.

Because of budget limitations, district officials say that they can only afford to have a districtwide program at one school for students with severe social or emotional needs. This year, that program is serving middle school students.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services, said there aren’t many students identified with severe emotional or social needs in elementary or high school, but for those that are, the special education teams at schools can determine how to serve that student in a regular classroom, or if absolutely necessary, students can be sent to get services out of the district.

Currently there are 25 Adams 14 students that the district is paying to receive services elsewhere. That’s down from 38 out-of-district placements last year.

But integrating those students into regular classrooms can be challenging. Barb McDowell, president of the teachers union in Adams 14, said that in those cases teachers need help from qualified special education staff. Without it, McDowell said teachers are also seeing more behavior issues among all students.

With the district’s turmoil, parents complain that their children’s needs are being overlooked. Shelly Hebel said her 14-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression, and a learning disability, could have used more mental health help specific to her social and emotional needs this year.

Instead, Hebel found out recently that Adams City High School wasn’t following her daughter’s special education plan. Among the requirements of the plan, Hebel said, teachers needed to allow the girl to leave classes early so she could walk across the campus before hallways are crowded. The girl’s emotional problems got so bad, she stopped going to classes.

Hebel said her oldest daughter had similar issues years ago and ended up dropping out of school, so she says this time she’s not taking chances. She is pulling her daughter out of school and will send her to the district’s alternative high school next year.

Meanwhile the district’s assistant director of student services, Cini, is trying to keep other projects moving forward, which she said could help improve services in the district.

“I know that intervention and prevention is our ticket out of constant crisis,” Cini said.

Union president McDowell said some teachers blame this year’s problems in part on cuts made in the current school year to the number of mental health professionals such as counselors and psychologists at schools.

“There was a lot of pushback on that, so next year every school will have a full-time mental health worker,” Cini said. “Everybody’s going to have that.”

In Adams 14, district officials say the responsibility of making sure a student’s plan is being followed belongs to each principal.

Annie Fahnestock, a special education teacher who resigned in January from Rose Hill, said the schools need more oversight.

“It was all left up to the coordinators and the director of special education,” Fahnestock said.

Christina said that she has seen changes that concern her, including instances where principals haven’t been as receptive to suggestions or the district’s ideas about inclusion of students in general education classrooms.

In November, for example, parents complained that the new school administration at Rose Hill was discriminating against students in the districtwide program for severe needs and making them feel unwelcome.

Her nonprofit group provided a training at the school, including for the principal and other staff, on how to talk about disability and how to be sensitive to students’ needs.

Teacher Fahnestock said the district’s special education coordinators and director came to her school often to share their concerns about special education programming with her principal.

“But in the end, it was more like it’s her building,” Fahnestock said. “So she gets final say.”

beyond high school

Report: Memphis students from poor families less likely to have access to advanced coursework

PHOTO: By Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images

While most high school students in Tennessee’s largest district have access to advanced courses to prepare them for college, most of those classes are concentrated in schools with more affluent families.

Of the 14 high schools in Shelby County Schools that offer more than 40 advanced classes, all but one have a lower percentage of students from poor families than the district.

Those schools educate slightly more than half of high school students in the Memphis district. In contrast, about a quarter of high school students are in schools with 20 or fewer advanced courses, according to a new district report.

District officials say those course offerings in the 2017-18 school year are closely correlated with the size of the school: The larger the student population, the more likely the school is to offer advanced courses. The concentration of schools with more affluent students was not examined in the report.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

The findings are scheduled to be presented at next week’s school board meeting as part of the district’s monthly check-in on various statistics on teaching and student learning.

Taking advanced classes in high school introduces students to college-level coursework and in many cases allows them to skip some college classes — saving students thousands of dollars. And because students from low-income families, who make up about 59 percent of Shelby County Schools, lag behind their more affluent peers in college enrollment, they are encouraged to take more advanced courses.

Advanced courses include programs such as such as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate, and honors courses.

Jessica Lotz, the district’s director of performance management who will present the report, said this year’s numbers are better than last year. Since her last report on the topic, three schools now offer advanced courses for the first time.

Staffing is the biggest barrier to offering more advanced courses, she said. So, additional teacher trainings are planned for the summer.

And district plans are underway to increase the number of students taking those courses. The district is also pursuing federal funds to help students from low-income families pay for dual enrollment courses, and also encouraging area colleges to lower the number of students needed to take a class so that smaller schools can participate.

The number of students taking advanced courses is part of the state Department of Education measure of a being ready for college, or a “ready graduate,” under its new accountability plan.

Scroll down to the bottom of this story for a full chart on the number of advanced courses by high school.

Here are the 14 schools with 40 or more advanced courses each:

  • White Station High (143 advanced courses)
  • Central High (116)
  • Middle College High (98)
  • Germantown High (95)
  • Cordova High (79)
  • Overton High (75)
  • Ridgeway High (74)
  • Bolton High (56)
  • Southwind High (55)
  • Whitehaven High (52)
  • Hollis F. Price Middle College High (46)
  • Kingsbury High (45)
  • Memphis Virtual School (43)
  • East High (42)

Note: The number of courses offered refers to unique advanced courses that are available at a given school, not the total number of times/sections the same course is offered for different groups of students.

Four high schools did not offer any advanced courses: Legacy Leadership Academy, a charter school; The Excel Center, an adult learning school; Newcomer International Center, a new high school program for immigrant students; and Northwest Prep Academy, an alternative school.

Of the advanced courses, International Baccalaureate, a high-profile certification program for high school students worldwide, was the least common. Just three more affluent high schools — Ridgeway, Germantown, and Bolton — offered those courses, according to the district’s data.

Dual enrollment, another category of advanced courses, are taught in partnership with an area college and count toward a postsecondary degree. Though the share of Shelby County Schools students taking dual enrollment courses has increased from about 5 to 9 percent since 2014, the percentage slightly decreased this year compared to last school year.

Most of the high schools, offer a total of 183 dual enrollment courses. But only four of the 16 charter schools in the report offered those classes.

About half of high schools in the district offer a total of 194 Advanced Placement courses, which culminate in a test at the end of the year that can count toward college credit if students score well enough. Most of those classes are concentrated in seven more affluent schools.

Those schools are:

  • White Station High (39 AP courses)
  • Central High (20)
  • Cordova High (15)
  • Kingsbury High (13)
  • Overton High (13)
  • Whitehaven High (11)
  • Southwind High (10)

Honors courses, which count toward an advanced high school diploma but do not count for college credit, were the most common with just over 1,000 across the district. Only seven schools, which were either charter schools or alternative schools, did not offer any honors courses.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to increase the percentage of students prepared for college by 2025. Currently, about 90 percent of students who graduate from the district would be required to take remedial classes in college because of low ACT scores, according to state data. That’s usually a sign that their high school did not adequately prepare them for college classes.

A state report released last fall examining where students go after high school showed that 56 percent of Shelby County Schools’ graduating class of 2016 went on to enroll in a four-year college or university, community college, or technical college. That’s compared to 63 percent of students statewide.

One of the report’s recommendations to boost that number was to improve partnerships with universities and increase the number of advanced course offerings — a recommendation Lotz emphasized Tuesday.

Shelby County Schools partners with the following universities and colleges for dual enrollment courses: Bethel University, Christian Brothers University, LeMoyne Owen College, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, University of Memphis, and William Moore College of Technology (Moore Tech)

Below you can find the advanced course offerings at each district-run and charter school in Shelby County Schools. Below that you can view the district’s full report.