On December 11 the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) released the district- and school-level PARCC test results. As expected, the scores reflected that most Colorado students aren’t meeting expectations in math and English language arts. Just as our earlier blog post on statewide PARCC scores explained, Colorado’s students are being held to higher expectations, and therefore, lower scores are hardly surprising during this time of transition. Instead, this year’s scores provide a baseline measurement as Colorado students, teachers, and school districts continue adjusting to the new, more rigorous standards aimed at preparing our kids for college and career.
While statewide results provide a useful overview, the district- and school- level results provide a more in depth look at varying student performance across districts and grade levels. The results also highlight some surprising opt out trends, which are reflected by student participation rates.
District-Level Results at a Glance
Performance on PARCC varied widely across Colorado school districts. In the chart below, we’ve plotted the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations in English language arts and math in Colorado’s 20 largest school districts – which are ordered from largest to smallest. For this comparison we focused on grades three and seven for several reasons:
- Third grade achievement is proven to be a key milestone for students and a predictor of future success in both literacy and math.
- Seventh grade is the final grade in which all students are administered the same math test, as eighth graders and above can be in enrolled in a variety of courses such as Algebra II and geometry.
- Student participation tended to be lower in the older grades, and therefore the results beyond seventh grade were less reliable.
Opt Out Distorts the Results
While these scores give a more comprehensive picture of student achievement, low participation rates across districts are likely distorting the data. Overall, the state’s participation rate was 82 percent, far below the 95 percent required by the U.S. Department of Education. Lower performing districts like Denver and Aurora witnessed higher participation rates, around 90 percent. This is in stark contrast to larger suburban districts such as Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Douglas County, where participation rates ranged from 67 percent to 73 percent. In addition to the large number of opt-outs in large suburban districts, rural districts saw the greatest proportion of test refusal. For example, in Dolores County in southwest Colorado, only 8.4 percent of students across all grades took the PARCC test.
While the district- and school-level results will provide a wealth of information about student performance and achievement gaps, such high numbers of student opt outs mean that the picture is incomplete and not fully accurate. High opt-out rates in generally high performing and rural districts may be concealing the severity of achievement gaps across districts and only provide a partial understanding about the challenges facing schools and students. Perhaps most importantly, when students opt out of tests in large numbers, parents lose their ability to compare schools and taxpayers lose the ability to measure their return on investment.