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Reyna Najera works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning from a school in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The pandemic set Colorado students back and widened some achievement gaps between white children and their Black and Hispanic peers, newly released data from state standardized assessments conducted in the spring show.

But the new results have big holes because of a significant drop in the number of students who took the test, and questions remain about how much academic ground kids have to cover — and how long it will take to catch up. 

Tackling those issues will be a priority as school officials delve into statewide results from the 2021 Colorado Measures of Academic Success assessments and from the Preliminary SAT and SAT tests that were required in the spring. 

The Colorado Department of Education on Thursday published results of each assessment ahead of a State Board of Education meeting where board members will review student outcomes. The department expects to publish school- and district-level data from the tests by the end of August. 

The statewide data highlights troubling trends in student academic performance amid coronavirus disruptions that began in March 2020. State education department leaders are still analyzing the data, but an initial analysis provides “confirmation of what many of us suspected,” Joyce Zurkowski, chief assessment officer at the department, said during a virtual briefing on Tuesday.

Students in individual grade levels “are achieving at a lower level in 2021 than they were achieving in 2019,” Zurkowski said. 

But she made special note of the challenges the pandemic created.

“As we all know, student instructional experiences most likely impacted their opportunity to learn,” she said. “Students may have had reduced…or disrupted learning opportunities. They received instruction…under a variety of conditions.”

Colorado moved forward with CMAS testing this year after pausing in 2020 after receiving a pandemic-related waiver from the federal government. The state’s approach to testing during the last school year was a compromise as lawmakers, district leaders, educators, parents and advocacy organizations became embroiled in a tense debate about whether to conduct assessments.

Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)

Proponents of CMAS testing called for a need to better understand how the pandemic was affecting learning and academic outcomes, fearing that without a statewide assessment, it would be hard to have a clear picture of what was happening across districts.

Opponents argued that districts and educators already had a grasp on student performance, with many districts conducting local assessments throughout the school year. They also cited concerns about adding stress to students’ schedules amid a year of tremendous anxiety and uncertainty, and worried the results wouldn’t be reliable or statistically valid because schools used different modes of learning — in person, hybrid and remote — at different times.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The state ultimately received federal approval to test students through a modified approach, giving students in third, fifth and seventh grades a CMAS exam in English language arts and testing students in fourth, sixth and eighth grades in math. Eighth graders were required to take science CMAS exams. Students in fifth and 11th grades did not have to take the CMAS science exams like they typically would, but CDE must report the science subscore from SAT testing this year.

Students did not take social studies exams in the spring.

Parents could opt their students into CMAS exams that were not required for their grade level. For example, parents with third graders could make sure their students completed CMAS tests in both English language arts and math. Tests were not available for students to take remotely.

A small share of students in grades 3-8 opted to take tests that were not required. For example, close to 10% of third graders opted in to the math assessment.

But, as in past years, parents could also opt their children out of the tests. For required tests, participation rates ranged from about 58% to more than 76%. That’s a decline from the last round of state assessments, in 2019, when participation rates ranged from about 89% to about 97%.

Participation also varied among different groups of students last spring. White students turned out for testing in higher rates than their Black, Hispanic and multiracial peers. Also, fewer students learning English and those with a disability participated in CMAS testing.

For example, while more than 67% of white seventh graders took the English Language Arts exam, just over half of Black seventh graders and more than 61% of Hispanic seventh graders took the same test, according to state data. Close to 58% of seventh graders who identify with at least two races completed the test.

Almost 60% of students with a disability took the seventh grade English Language Arts exam, compared with more than 64% of their peers who do not have a disability. There was a smaller gap between test takers who are English as a second language students and their peers who are not identified as ESL students — about 62% of ESL students took the seventh grade English Language Arts exam, compared with about 64% of those who are native speakers.

The state also saw fewer students living in poverty — those who qualify for free and reduced price lunch — take required CMAS assessments last spring. However, Zurkowski advised that the data should be “used cautiously” with districts struggling to capture accurate counts of kids from low-income households.

Some of the same trends emerged among test-takers for the PSAT and the SAT.

“What we see relatively consistently is overrepresentation of white students, underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic and multiracial students, underrepresentation of…our students with disabilities and our English learners,” Zurkowski said.

Some gaps between students are worsening

When comparing overall results for English Language Arts assessments across grades, fewer students met or exceeded expectations than in 2019. The state saw a 1 to 4 percentage point drop in the number of students who met or exceeded expectations for that subject area.

Many students struggled even more in math. The number of students who met or exceeded expectations in the spring dropped 5 to 7 percentage points from results in 2019, state data shows. The percentage of fourth and sixth graders who met and exceeded expectations this spring was the lowest it’s been since CMAS exams began.

Standardized test results show some achievement gaps are worsening between groups of students, with Black and Hispanic students, ESL students and those with disabilities pacing behind their peers. 

For the state’s English language assessment, white students met and exceeded expectations about 25 to 33 percentage points higher than Black and Hispanic students. In math, white students met and exceeded expectations about 21 to 26 percentage points higher than Black and Hispanic students across grade levels.

These gaps are not unexpected considering the outsized impacts of COVID-19 on Black and Hispanic students outside of academics, Zurkowski said, noting that many of those students are in the Denver metro area.

“While there were some districts who were able to provide technology on a one-to-one basis, not all districts were able to do that,” she said, adding that connectivity issues posed problems and that students had varying resources, particularly when learning remotely.

Just over 10% of ESL students in third grade met and exceeded expectations on the English Language Arts assessment, compared with 44% of native speakers in third grade. Almost 7% of fifth grade ESL students met and exceeded expectations in English language arts, compared with 52% of fifth graders who are native speakers.

In math, only about 4% fourth grade ESL students met and exceeded expectations on assessments, while 32% of fourth graders who are native speakers met and exceeded expectations. Close to 2% of ESL students in sixth grade met and exceeded expectations, compared with 26% of native speakers. And 1.5% of ESL students in eighth grade met and exceeded expectations, compared with 32% of native speakers in eighth grade.

Harrison School District 2 fourth grader Mariah Randle gets hand sanitizer from a dispenser at the entrance to the cafeteria at Centennial Elementary School in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Randle and a handful of other kids were in the school to make a video for Harrison School District 2 parents, showing parents what to expect when their kids returned to in-person learning last fall. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Students with disabilities who took the English language arts assessment met and exceeded expectations up to 40 percentage points lower than their peers without disabilities. In math, students with disabilities met and exceeded expectations up to 29 percentage points lower than those without disabilities.

The state education department has sketched out projections about how long it could take students to overcome the academic setbacks they have endured during the pandemic. 

If schools return to a similar rate of learning as what they’ve experienced in the past, Zurkowski said,  “it will take us longer to get back to where we were historically. If we can accelerate learning, then we will get back to our historical levels more quickly.”

The data from last spring’s assessments provides a baseline to inform academic-recovery work, Zurkowski said, noting “that is probably one of its most important uses.” 

The assessment results also will be used to help direct the use of funds, including some of the federal stimulus dollars Colorado received to help schools and students make learning gains amid the pandemic, she said.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...