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First-grade classroom decor is seen on Thursday, August 12, 2021, at Second Creek Elementary School in Commerce City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado students made significant headway in overcoming academic setbacks due to pandemic-related hiccups in learning, but their progress still hasn’t set them fully back on track, according to state standardized test data published by the Colorado Department of Education on Wednesday.

Colorado Measures of Academic Success assessments are typically conducted each spring as a way to gauge how well students and schools are meeting state academic standards. The department made assessment results from spring 2022 public the same day that State Board of Education members were scheduled to review student performance and growth.

Last spring’s assessments marked a return to normalcy for Colorado schools as they administered them in the same way that tests were given in spring 2019. Exams had the same content and format as they did in 2019 and were also scored in the same way as before the pandemic. Colorado paused standardized testing in spring 2020 amid the start of COVID-19 after receiving a waiver from the federal government. During spring 2021, students took modified tests through a compromise after teachers, parents, lawmakers and education advocates weighed in about how to approach the exams in what ballooned into a statewide debate. 

Under that compromise, students in third, fifth and seventh grades were required to take the CMAS exam in English language arts while students in fourth, sixth and eighth grades took math exams. Eighth graders took CMAS science exams while students in fifth and 11th grades were exempt from having to take CMAS exams in science. Students also did not complete social studies exams.

During a virtual media conference on Monday afternoon, state education officials prefaced the release of the latest results with a reminder that, although many Colorado students resumed a greater sense of normalcy throughout the school year, others still experienced interruptions and setbacks.

During the past school year, “we did return to more typical school types of experiences, (but) some students still had some reduced or disrupted learning opportunities and we need to keep that in mind as we review these assessments,” said Joyce Zurkowski, chief assessment officer at the state education department. “Districts and schools were still making instructional adjustments to address for the lost opportunities to learn over the last couple of years.”

A third grade classroom at Eagleside Elementary is seen on Wednesday, July 7, 2021 at in Fountain. Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 in El Paso County serves over 8,000 students in 13 schools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The results spell out both good and bad news for Colorado students and schools. State education officials were encouraged to see students in many grades who took CMAS assessments in math and English language arts outperform results from spring 2021 exams. Yet, student performance still trailed scores from 2019 exams in just about every grade level and subject.

For example, 40.7% of third graders met or exceeded expectations on their 2022 English language arts assessment, up from 39.1% last year but still down from 41.3% in 2019. Those academic strides weren’t shared by fifth and seventh graders who also took English language arts exams. In both grades, the percentage of students who met or exceeded expectations last spring dwindled below scores from 2021 and 2019.

Math results proved more positive across the board when comparing 2022 results to those from 2021. In fourth grade, 30.7% of students met or exceeded expectations last spring, up from 28.5% in 2021 while in sixth grade, 26.3% of students met or exceeded expectations compared to 24.1% in 2021. Eighth grade results showed 32.4% of students met or exceeded expectations, up from 29.5% in 2021. Still, math scores fell short of 2019 scores in every grade level.

Students who took the PSAT and SAT had a few gains and mostly losses when eyeing scores for last spring against those of recent years. The percentage of 10th graders at or above the college readiness benchmark in reading and writing on the PSAT improved from 2019 while the percentage of 10th graders at or above the college readiness benchmark in math on the PSAT also improved slightly from 2019. The remainder of scores across grades were worse than outcomes from 2021 and 2019, including for ninth graders’ PSAT math results, which were 8.8 percentage points lower than 2019 results.

Some achievement gaps are narrowing — but not because students are making progress

The latest standardized test data demonstrates that some achievement gaps among Colorado student groups are shrinking — but not in the direction that indicates progress. There were some instances of students who are part of groups that have historically scored lower on the tests improving their scores. But in many cases, achievement gaps shrunk because more students who are part of groups that have historically had better academic outcomes performed worse. In other words, the losses of high-performing student groups outweighed the gains made by their peers who have traditionally scored lower. 

“That is not how we want to see the gap decrease,” Zurkowski said, adding that the state wants to see both groups improving their performance with lower-achieving groups increasing at a higher rate than higher-achieving groups.

Achievement gaps tightened in other cases because the percentage of traditionally lower-performing students who improved in meeting or exceeding expectations was greater than the percentage of students from higher-performing groups who met or exceeded expectations, compared to 2019.

Achievement gaps between racial groups are also persisting. In 2021, white students met and exceeded expectations about 25 to 33 percentage points higher than Black and Hispanic students on CMAS English language arts exams. In 2022, white students met and exceeded expectations about 24 to about 30 percentage points higher than Black students and 27 to about 32 percentage points higher than Hispanic groups.

In math results from 2021, white students met and exceeded expectations about 21 to 26 percentage points higher than Black and Hispanic students across grade levels. In 2022, white students met and exceeded expectations about 23 to about 29 percentage points higher than Black students and 24 to about 30 percentage points higher than Hispanic students.

Meanwhile, achievement gaps between students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch — a federal measure of poverty — and their more affluent counterparts decreased compared to results from 2019. That’s because percentages of students who met or exceeded expectations decreased at a greater rate among more affluent kids than among students who qualify for subsidized school lunches.

Participation on standardized tests swung back toward pre-pandemic rates

Participation on CMAS tests as well as on PSAT and SAT exams rebounded this past spring, inching closer back to participation rates recorded before the pandemic. During the 2020-21 school year, participation on state standardized tests plummeted. CMAS assessments saw “a significant dip” in the number of students who completed the tests, Zurkowski said, with participation anywhere from 20 to 30 percentage points between spring 2019 and spring 2021.

CMAS participation among elementary schoolers saw “significant recovery” this past school year, she said. Third, fourth and fifth graders were also close to having 95% participation in both English language arts and math, according to state data. About 90% of sixth graders sat for tests while about 85% of seventh graders and approximately 80% of eighth graders took the assessments.

Meanwhile, participation on the PSAT and SAT also regained momentum, though still did not match participation rates in 2019. Close to 86% of Colorado ninth graders took the PSAT, up from about 73% in 2021; 85% of 10th graders took the PSAT, up from 73% in 2021; and nearly 87% of 11th graders completed the SAT, up from close to 80% in 2021.

A sign hangs on Mrs. Jones’ classroom door at Isaac P. Ortega Middle School in Alamosa, Colorado, on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

However, students in different racial, socioeconomic and learning subgroups participated in standardized tests at lower rates than their peers, the data shows.

Black students and students with disabilities were underrepresented on CMAS exams in math across grades. For example, while 94% of all third graders took the math assessment, about 91% of Black students in third grade took that exam and about 85% of third grade students with disabilities completed it. Students who identify as two or more races were also underrepresented on math assessments in grades seven and eight. 

Participation rates of Hispanic students on CMAS math exams across grades were about on par with the percentage of all students who took the exams, except for in grade eight, when Hispanic students were among the student groups overrepresented.

Participation on PSAT and SAT tests lagged for Black and Hispanic students as well as for students with disabilities, students learning English and students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, according to state data. For instance, while about 87% of all 11th grade students took the SAT last spring, about 85% of Black students and 85% of Hispanic students took the exam. Close to 73% of students with disabilities sat for the SAT while more than 78% of kids learning English and more than 82% of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch completed it.

While state standardized test results provide an overview of where students are academically as they continue recovering from pandemic-fueled school disruptions, they’re just one metric to help parents and educators analyze how kids are doing, Zurkowski said.

Parents and educators can better understand where students are in their academic recovery by looking into other measures like local district tests, she said.

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin