For more than two years, the coronavirus pandemic has ignited fears among parents and educators about the learning opportunities missed by children as their time spent in classrooms was repeatedly disrupted.
But new data from the state education department offers a glimmer of hope: More Colorado students tested as proficient in math this spring than they did in 2021. The state’s third-graders also did better in English and reading than students in that grade did last year.
Overall, more students took Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests — which are offered to children in grades 3 to 8 — in math and reading this year compared to 2021 so the scores are the first time the state, school districts, and parents can see how students are performing compared to pre-pandemic years.
While scores show some improvement over last year, students are lagging compared to where they were before the public health crisis as the percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” in math and reading fell across all grades compared to 2019, according to the results released Wednesday.
Two notable bright spots in the scores are that they show the percentage of third-graders and sixth-graders who “met or exceeded expectations” in reading was flat compared to 2019. The performance of the younger students surprised officials with the Colorado Department of Education.
“Our third-graders are very close to where they were in 2019,” said Joyce Zurkowski, the agency’s chief assessment officer. “I would admit that is not what I would have predicted.”
However, the biggest decline in scores also occurred among English language learners in this age group who receive language arts instruction in Spanish, with the percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” dropping almost 8 percentage points compared to three years ago.
There was also about a 5 percentage point drop in the percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” in reading among fourth-graders who also receive instruction in Spanish, according to the results.
English language learners were hit hardest by the switch to remote learning and have the furthest to go in terms of catching up to pre-pandemic levels, according to the state Department of Education. A study in 2020 found that Colorado children who lacked internet access were disproportionately Hispanic, younger and from lower-income families.
The second largest drop occurred in math among seventh-graders. The percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” fell by more than 6 percentage points compared to 2019, according to the results.
More student participation than last year
It is difficult to compare this year’s test scores to 2021. Not every grade level was required to take every test last year and more children opted out of them, raising questions about whether the results would prove useful. For example, Denver Public Schools – the state’s largest school district – disregarded last year’s results.
Others have argued for state testing during the pandemic, including Erin Kane, the new superintendent of Douglas County School District this year. She wrote an opinion piece in late 2020 arguing in favor of testing students so that educators could understand the impact the pandemic had on learning.
“If we don’t understand where we are then we won’t understand where to go,” she said in an interview. “I am a big advocate. Data is essential, we have to know where our kids are and we have to know where their gaps are.”
The state canceled the tests in 2020 because schools had to rapidly close and switch to remote learning after government officials discovered the virus was already circulating in the state.
More students participated in the exams this spring, with more than 90% of third-graders, fourth-graders and fifth-graders taking the tests. Participation was slightly lower among middle-school students, ranging from 78% to 89%.
Black students and children with disabilities were also less likely to take the tests compared to their peers, according to 2022 participation data.
The education department did not know why participation was lower among Black students, Zurkowski said.
While the 2021 results come with many caveats, they did show that students were struggling. Students have since made progress as results have rebounded slightly, especially in math, according to the education department.
A look at metro area districts
At Denver Public Schools, students’ proficiency in both math and reading fell across every grade level except for third-graders, who saw reading scores remain flat. The decline in proficiency was most notable among seventh-graders, with the percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” in reading dropping about 7 percentage points compared to 2019.
Likewise at Jeffco Public Schools, students’ proficiency in reading and math either fell or remained flat. There was one notable exception: the percentage of third-graders to meet or exceed expectations in reading and math rose by almost two percentage points compared to 2019, according to the data.
Douglas County School District saw improvements in reading across all grade levels compared to 2019. Third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders in the district also made gains in math.
The performance of the district’s middle schoolers in math mostly remained flat. The biggest decline in scores occurred among sixth-graders, with the percentage of students who “met or exceeded expectations” dropping by only 1.3 percentage points compared to 2019.
“We’re just blessed to have incredible teachers here in Douglas County,” Kane said. “They worked really hard.”
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