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Tests raise learning expectations

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In the 2014-15 school year, students in Delta County joined those in 11 states and the District of Columbia in taking a national assessment known as the PARCC. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test is intended to measure students' achievement levels in math and English language arts/literacy. More rigorous academic standards have been adopted in those areas, to ensure students are ready for college and/or a career by the time they graduate.

The tests were administered in grades 3-11 last March, and because they were so new, results were released to school districts just a few weeks ago. Student reports will be distributed shortly after the beginning of the second semester, according to Kurt Clay, assistant superintendent of Delta County Joint School District #50.

As expected, most Colorado students did not meet state expectations on the new, more difficult assessments.

State and district officials emphasize that the first PARCC scores serve as a baseline, a foundation on which students and educators can build as they continue to adapt to the Common Core standards in language arts and math.

In language arts, 40 percent of Colorado students rated as meeting or exceeding expectations, ranging from a high of about 43 percent in fourth grade to a low of 37 percent in 10th grade. Students did worse in math: 29 percent of Colorado students hit those marks, ranging from about 19 percent in eighth grade to 37 percent in third grade.

Those results are laid out in the accompanying table, alongside Delta County results.

"Honestly, these results are pretty close to where we thought they were going to be," Clay said.

He said district administrators discovered that schools that put a lot of time and effort into training students how to take the online tests did a lot better than the schools that didn't. "We're getting up to speed on how to test on the computers, and the type of concept-based questions that are being asked." Students had to do much more complex thinking than just fill-in-the-blank answers, he added.

Overall, Clay said, the district feels the assessments are a valuable tool for measuring competency of Colorado academic standards.

"It's important to find out where students are in relation to other students. That's the true measure of our students' understanding. Are there some things we have to do better to prepare kids for the tests themselves? Yes, there are some definite testing strategies. It's different from paper and pencil, and that may have taken some validity out of this year's test; however, we're still accountable for teaching those standards."

Another closely watched component of the PARCC tests is the participation rate. In future years, low participation will carry consequences for schools and school districts.

But a testing reform law passed last spring created a one-year timeout in the accountability system.

According to a Chalkbeat review, just 32 Colorado school districts reported their overall PARCC participation at 95 percent or above, as required by federal law.

Overall, the state's PARCC participation rate was 82 percent, an all-time low for Colorado state standardized tests. Delta County's participation rate varied by school, but dropped significantly at the secondary level. High school students in general don't see much value in testing, because they're preparing for the ACT, Clay said. That's consistent with results from across the state.

The opt-out provision was approved by state legislation, but there's still a question about how the federal requirement is tied to federal funding, Clay said. For Delta County, that's a $4 million question.

The school district has also been frustrated by the delayed reporting of results. Because the tests were taken online, results were expected much sooner.

"They're telling us that because this was a baseline year, it took some time to establish benchmarks," Clay said. From here on out, results are expected to be available within a month, which will help teachers address gaps at the beginning of the school year.

Shortly after school resumes in January, principals and teachers will be educated about the student reports, so they can be prepared to address questions when those results are sent home. "Our teachers and principals have already seen the data, but they haven't gone out to parents yet," Clay explained. "We want to make sure our staff is educated in how to read them before they go out to parents."

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