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Colorado students are improving in literacy — possibly to the detriment of their math skills. That’s bad for the economy.

A statewide look at student assessments suggests Colorado school districts have sacrificed math skills to meet state literacy goals.

School supplies in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Colorado students have inched forward with progress in reading following a statewide focus on improving literacy, but their math skills aren’t moving in the same direction — or, really, in any direction.

A report released by A+ Colorado this week highlights how stagnant math scores have been on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success assessments, noting that most districts’ scores didn’t tick up, though the bottom fourth’s performance improved.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a national report card — point to the same conclusion: Colorado students aren’t improving by leaps and bounds in math, but they’re also not falling further behind.

It’s a problem that Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, sees as “fixable” at a time when more jobs are demanding students finish school with strong math skills.

Schoales supports lawmakers’ emphasis on literacy in recent years as they’ve formalized efforts around ensuring students can read and write, adopting the READ Act in 2012 — which didn’t boost kids’ reading abilities as intended — and developing rules for teacher training on reading instruction.

But he also suspects that that sharp focus on reading has robbed other academic subjects of attention. Schools and districts must be able to balance both, he said.

The slight progress in math compared to English Language Arts is “an indicator of a lack of attention to math relative to English Language Arts and we think it’s critical that school districts and the state pay as much attention to math as they do to English Language Arts,” Schoales said.

“It’s not a zero-sum game,” he said.

The report from A+ Colorado, titled Outliers 2020, raises concerns about districts “behind the curve,” but its findings aren’t all bleak. The report, an annual initiative that captures the state of Colorado schools, also calls out districts that are excelling. Those districts that are making strides in mathematics include Colorado Springs School District 11, Widefield School District 3, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 and Lewis-Palmer School District 38.

A+ Colorado analyzed data from the Colorado Department of Education, concentrating on student growth in academics rather than achievement, which is significantly influenced by outside factors like family background. Growth also provides a fairer basis for comparing schools, since kids have different abilities when starting classes. However, because of student privacy concerns, some of the state data is masked. The report is limited because of how much data is available, Schoales said, noting that Colorado masks more data than other states. 

The report doesn’t explore how each highlighted district has moved the needle in math. Schoales hopes that educators will see the results in other districts and investigate the reasons for their success.

But that will require solving a culture problem: Colorado school districts don’t often try to learn from one another. Districts, Schoales said, don’t necessarily believe that the successes other districts experience can apply to the specific student populations they serve. He wants to see resources invested in better understanding how high-performing schools are excelling and support learning around it.

Globes sit in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

In Colorado Springs School District 11, math is becoming more of a focus as district specialists like David Sawtelle help teachers better understand the nature of the expectations in the standards for math.

The district, which had more than 26,000 students during the last school year, performed in the 48th percentile in terms of median growth on the 2019 CMAS math assessment, according to A+ Colorado’s report.

“It’s an OK, decent showing for a district of our nature,” Sawtelle, the district’s K-12 mathematics facilitator, said. “It’s not a place to want to stay, to be satisfied with.”

“We need to keep working harder for more and more of our students,” he added.

Those students include Black students, whose median growth percentile fell significantly behind the 50th percentile mark, as well as students living in poverty and students with special needs, Sawtelle said.

Still, the district has improved its math scores through “promising practices” that include having revamped the way third, fourth and fifth graders learn math. At one elementary school, students approached math in the same way they would a writing assignment, completing a first and second draft and receiving feedback from their teacher along the way. Students’ attitude toward math took a turn, Sawtelle said, as their negativity toward a problem solving prompt waned and they became more engaged and detailed with their answers.

That strategy was deployed during the 2018-19 school year. On the spring 2019 CMAS assessment, scores jumped significantly, Sawtelle said.

It’s a direction that Schoales and other education advocates hope more students take with their performance in math, for the sake of their own future and the state’s as a whole.

Colorado’s economy has become more diverse in the past 20 years, in large part because of the growth of the technology sector, which demands math and logic skills, Schoales said.

Other in-demand fields, like business and financial operations occupations, also rely heavily on a strong foundation in math, said Kelly Caufield, vice president of government affairs at Colorado Succeeds, citing information about the fastest-growing occupations from the Colorado Talent Pipeline Report, which is led by the state-run Colorado Workforce Development Council.

Based on data from that report “you can’t leave math behind,” Caufield said of setting up kids for success in high-demand, fast-growing jobs.

It’s one component within a broader set of skills Colorado employers are seeking in their workforce — which also includes entrepreneurial and civic skills.

Without better student outcomes in math, Caufield anticipates the state’s skills gap will continue and employers will keep looking to other states for talent, pushing homegrown students further behind.

“You see a lot of talent imported from other states all the time,” Caufield said.


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