Statewide assessment scores for elementary and middle school students in Colorado fell in 2021 from scores recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, the number of students taking the test fell statewide from previous years, according to data compiled by the Colorado Department of Education.
Reading scores for third, fifth and seventh graders fell between 1.2% and 3.9% by grade level from 2019 to 2021, while more than 70% of fourth, sixth and seventh graders – in each respective year – have failed to meet or exceed the expectations of the standardized assessment in mathematics, depending on the state.
Experts who spoke to The Gazette said the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Comparison of 2019 and 2021 Colorado Statewide Academic Achievement Measures
|Year||District||School level||Evaluation||Rate of participation||Met or exceeded expectations|
|2019||Statewide||Third||English language arts||96.9%||41.3%|
|2021||Statewide||Third||English language arts||76.2%||39.1%|
|2019||Statewide||Fifth||English language arts||96.2%||48.4%|
|2021||Statewide||Fifth||English language arts||74.4%||47.2%|
|2019||Statewide||Seventh||English language arts||92.4%||46.5%|
|2021||Statewide||Seventh||English language arts||63.7%||42.6%|
“We are very careful to say that we should not use statewide assessments as this final, ultimate or only indicator of what is happening with student learning, because we know there are other data points that we need to look at to get the full picture,” said Amie Baca-Oehlertpresident of the Colorado Education Association.
Families have had the option to opt out of Colorado’s educational achievement measures since the mid-2010s, but participation rates have remained flat through 2021, state data shows.
In 2019, participation rates in the English Language Arts and Mathematics assessment – which were compulsory for all students in grades three to eight – were over 94%.
Participation rates have dropped between 20% and 30% in 2021, making it harder to compare assessment results, said Joyce Zurkowski, assessment manager at the Colorado Department of Education.
Zurkowski said participation rates in the early primary and secondary years were around 20%, while upper secondary ages were closer to 30%.
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Some grade levels have seen larger declines in some districts than in others. For example, School District 14 in Adams County saw a 56% drop in the number of seventh graders taking the English Language Arts assessment in 2021 compared to 2019, while schools Douglas County public utilities only saw a 10% drop for the same rating.
Denver public schools saw declines in participation ranging from 39% to nearly 60% in all assessments between third and eighth grades, according to state data.
Some believe that students who have traditionally met or exceeded expectations on assessments are those who have withdrawn, while others believe that it is students who have traditionally struggled with standardized tests who have not passed them.
Zurkowski said students of color, especially black and Hispanic students, have withdrawn more than other students. Historically, white students have withdrawn more often than students of color.
“I think it’s partly (a reflection) of how our communities have been impacted (by the pandemic) and it was disproportionate,” Zurkowski said. “Our students who were in Hispanic and Black communities were more impacted by COVID than our students who weren’t in those communities. And I’m not saying students who were in the suburbs weren’t impacted, but we know that our Hispanic students and Black communities have been more affected.”
Due to the lack of representation from Hispanic and Black communities, Zurkowski and others at the Colorado Department of Education created two datasets comparing previous results to 2021 scores and a “matched” dataset that provides ” an indication of what the results would have looked like if the 2021 testers had more similar demographic characteristics, including district setting, than the 2019 testers” according to a presentation made to the State Board of Education in August.
Had there been greater turnout, scores would have fallen slightly between 0.6% and 1.7%, the matched results showed.
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When analyzing the 2021 results, parents and students can compare their individual scores with state standards. However, comparing one school or district to another is difficult due to the variation in the number of pandemic quarantines and time spent learning online.
“We discourage people from overdoing it and really encourage them to look at their own individual scores and their own community,” Zurkowski said.
Baca-Oehlert recommended that parents look at all the data points provided by educators to get an idea of their child’s match.
The state assessment “is just one data point that we have to look at, and that tells us something, but we have to look at a whole set of things,” Baca-Oehlert said. “I’m a parent myself and I can watch so many things that tell me what’s going on with my child and how they’re learning.”
She added that parents can better understand where their student is by looking at interim assessments — which vary by district — or talking with their child’s teacher.
Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, said Coloradans should look at graduation rates and dropout percentages to get a more accurate understanding of the state’s educational status.
Last year, Colorado’s four-year graduation rate was 81.7% – lower than 2020, but higher than 2018 and 2019. However, it was well below the US average of 86%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Likewise, dropout rates have declined slightly, with 270 fewer students dropping out in the 2020-21 academic year, according to the state.
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While these numbers may help paint a better picture of Colorado’s learning situation, experts said there is still a lot we don’t know about the impacts of the pandemic.
Zurkowski and others said they expect the 2022 ratings to be released in August. They believe they will help educators better understand the lasting effects of the pandemic.
“We don’t expect a return (in attendance) to 2019 levels, but we do expect a significant increase from what we saw last year,” Zurkowski said. “I think that will provide a clearer picture than what we were able to get from last year’s data.”
“No single number can paint the full picture, but as part of a broader portfolio of information, it’s a critical piece,” Zurkowski said of the state’s assessments. “One of the reasons CMAS was put in place in the first place was specifically to make sure parents got information about how their child was doing compared to state standards, which they don’t always get as clearly, as sharply, as they get with state assessments, so this information helps them better understand where their student is.”