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Flat Scores in the Rocky Mountain State: CSAP 2010

August 12, 2010

When I look for statistics or other numbers to help put a story into perspective, I can’t help but think of the quote attributed to Mark Twain regarding  lies and statistics.  Nevertheless, I appreciate that numbers can help us in explaining trends just about as much as they can create a skewed version of the truth. In general, the word to describe this year’s Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) test scores is ‘flat’. (That said, I wonder: was I the only one confused about how to access the stats on this year’s CSAP results for grades 4 and up?  The Denver Post used to provide a tidy little table of all pertinent information in hard copy version, and they may still do so, but I no longer get the Post delivered to my home. When I finally had time to check into the scores I, couldn’t find a table that shows all information at once; it seems you have to look school-by-school, district by district, particular to the demographic you want to see, or you can see a much more generalized picture of all Colorado students.  I would much rather see nicely aligned tables with numbers to help me make comparisons.)

The general stories I’m seeing tell us that Colorado’s results have shown some growth, but perhaps not as much growth as desired, perhaps with the exception of Aurora, Denver, Harrison District 2 and Mapleton schools. A story posted by Todd Engdahl on Education News Colorado does not indicate any compelling solutions offered by the Colorado Department of Education :

Bill Bonk, who works on growth issues for the Department of Education, said, “We face great challenge in this state” in helping such students catch up. …“More than 85 percent of students who need to catch up don’t appear to be doing so,” Bonk said. “The actions taken thus far have not been effective enough.” Asked what the state should be doing, Bonk said, “Part of the reason for having a growth model is to shine a light” on the problem. “It doesn’t show the path ahead.”

Yes, but we are all about shining that light on “the problem”.  For example, we  had school “report cards”, now we talk about school performance framework, and we talk about AYP, and about restructuring schools who fail to meet it, and then we talk about things like SB 191 and how we really should be making sure teachers are effective.  We are practically turning cartwheels in our enthusiasm to talk about it but we don’t seem to settle down long enough to honestly address solving it. If the tests were truly useful in helping us to improve student performance, shouldn’t we have some sort of path by now?  Um, and if they aren’t helping us to make improvements for kids’ educations, then has the expenditure for things like producing, conducting, and scoring the CSAP been a truly efficient use of educational resources?

The Denver Post mentions an interesting disconnect between Colorado’s self-proclaimed emphasis on reforms and its lack of significant improvement in test scores.   Nancy Mitchell at Education News Colorado asks the question of whether or not reform is paying off, while also mentioning that some districts are “experimenting” with a variety of strategies to boost scores.  However that concept worries me, I’m wary about ongoing “experiments” in education, because they haven’t appeared to help yet.  We have been putting our efforts into such tests in Colorado for over 10 years now and accordingly aligning our judgments of a school’s merit.  This gets everybody excited, for better or for worse, but fear of low scores has led to many poor administrative decisions that don’t reflect best practices identified by quality educational research.   Every time I turn around, schools are changing their programs or their approaches from one type or brand to another without having invested adequate time to see whether the previous programs aided (or hindered) student learning over the long term. And by the way, CSAP (or any standardized test) does not provide us with complete information of what individual children need to grow as learners, especially since most results are released after the school year.  August is too late to adjust one’s lessons or practice to help with that preceding group of kids.

What if we tried investing some effort into cultivating skills students indisputably need to succeed in their successive years of education, and in the eventual job market? Real reform would consist of  identifying and focusing on those elements that enable people to communicate effectively, to make sense of the world and to become productive, contributing members of the work force.  All of the nation’s schools need strong, well-developed curricula that will develop such skills. As educators, we all need to emphasize rigorous instruction and high expectations of students.  Collectively we, as a society, need to demonstrate the willingness to invest the resources in assisting students who need additional support, whether due to lack of English,  learning/cognitive disabilities, or other less visible factors.  We also need to ensure that children have equal access to quality early childhood education, and that teachers have access to quality professional development. How about keeping it simple instead of running around like ants at a picnic? Let’s commit to faithfully implementing identified best practices, just for fun.  We could even call it an experiment.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Sass permalink
    August 13, 2010 4:41 pm

    Let’s remember the purpose for the CSAPs: it’s for accountability. The general public is the audience. That said, I agree that the results are way too long in coming. Here we are four days away from starting school and I still do not have student by student results. It’s best to respond to the information from CSAPs before I sart teaching and not while I am teaching.

    CSAPs do assess important skill sets that I think all students should possess. CSAPs were, after all, initially designed by teachers. It’s important for teachers to use information from CSAPs to build upon what teachers should already know about their students. Formative assessments–and by this I do not necessarily mean multiple-choice tests–should be used throughout the year to guage the progress of a teacher’s students. These formative assessments, which research tells us are some of the most powerful strategies a teacher can use in the classroom, should act as a predictor for a student’s CSAP score.

    I think CSAPs do provide us with some important information. But change takes time, and adaptive change usually includes implementation dips that our public and policy makers seem to have no patience for.

    I am OK with experiments in education. After all, can they be any worse? I do become concerned when experimentation seeminly takes place only among low income and minority schools, sending a message to some that these students are some how expendable.

    CSAPs are, for lack of a better analogy, autopsies. We need to focus on and respond to information during the school year to keep the patient healthy. Of course this is where the hard work takes place. And this is where the resources need to be rushed to students who are not being successful. But that involves funding students based on thier needs versus some standarized formula which assumes every student learns at the same pace. This is where I’d like to see our energies focussed on the upcoming legislative year. Now that we’ve passed legislation that has responded to conservative’s concerns over teacher effectiveness and teacher tenure, let’s have them pt their money where their mouth’s are.

    • August 14, 2010 9:07 am

      Really good point about channeling funds where they’re most needed, and not “experimenting” on the neediest students all the time. That’s one of my main beefs with “reform” in its current incarnation. People look at the dollars and assume everyone is being supported equally, which is so very far off base, and then start tinkering with the most vulnerable kids. They also tend to assume that nothing is going right in these schools or with these kids, which is completely untrue. There is a lot of strength and skill that gets ignored when all we see are low test scores.

      I’m not so sure that formative assessments always do track to CSAP or other standardized tests, though. Depending on how you assess students’ progress, you may get very different reads on what they can do, because some ways of assessing do a better job of assessing the core skill (vs. test items that may test something entirely different than what they’re intended to, which I see a LOT at the elementary level). There are often effects based on the stakes of the test and who administers it (my students were far more comfortable doing low-key formative assessments with me than they were taking CSAP, which was such a HUGE deal).

  2. mariasallee permalink*
    August 14, 2010 9:26 am

    Thanks for reading and for your comments. I appreciate your autopsy comparison and I do agree that we need to conduct ongoing, quality assessment throughout the school year. Teachers (and parents) need to be informed and willing to insist on legislative changes that will really help students. A sincere, thoughtful commitment to intervention with struggling students would save us a lot of money in the long run. I don’t argue with the notion of accountability but it seems like we’ve gone in the wrong direction in our anxiety to demonstrate it.

    The lack of organization and mindful planning I typically see in low SES schools frustrates and exhausts me ; Frequently, principals forgo the implementation of research-based practice and opt instead for faddish programs that have great PR about how they can work wonders. Or, perhaps, they insist on boring supposed “back-to-basic” programs that don’t inspire anybody. I like to think about my own children and what I want for them when I plan my instruction for my students. Kids from lower SES homes should have access to the same types of opportunities that middle class kids do, because we want them to be successful in a society that is largely middle class. We need the best, most experienced, most informed educators in these schools, including leaders who are competent instructors themselves. Unfortunately, we don’t have a history of ensuring that we do.

  3. December 9, 2010 4:04 pm

    Pure frustration. I’ve searched high and low to find the spreadsheet of CSAP test results as they were provided in 2008, but alas I am only allowed the interface to search school-by-school.

    Speaking to someone directly at CDE or receiving a phone call back is even more impossible.

    Does anyone have the spreadsheet of CSAP test results by school?


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