For the first time since the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) launched, third-graders in the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 scored better in reading than the state average, according to test results released by the Colorado Department of Education Tuesday.
The district has previously hovered just below or equal to the state for third-grade reading, which is considered one of the most important metrics of academic success, both for individuals and schools as a whole.
“Third-grade reading is probably the most foundational academic skill for future learning,” said Re-1 Assistant Superintendent Rob Stein. “It’s the beginning of that transition from learning to read to reading to learn.”
In district schools from Glenwood Springs to Basalt, 74 percent of 360 third-grade students who took the tests this year scored proficient or above, one point above last year and two points above the state’s average.
It’s a small victory that suggests that community funding and district efforts are having an impact.
“If anything is paying off, it might be the professional development more than all else,” said Stein. He credited extra funds from a 2011 mill levy with allowing the district to expand that development, as well as the purchase of new materials.
Valley schools have also added new literacy programs, improved the summer advantage program, and expanded access to full-day kindergarten. The district enrolls around 75 percent of students in full-day kindergarten despite state funding that only covers 58 percent.
“There’s a lot of new things to adjust to, but everyone dug in and worked hard,” said Re-1 Superintendent Diana Sirko.
This year was the district’s last chance to measure improvement on the TCAP, which will be replaced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) next year.
The new test will allow educators to draw comparisons between states, will add a social studies assessment, and will use a digital interface. Schools will have to establish a new baseline for comparison, and may see lower proficiency levels due to increased test rigor.
Regardless, Sirko says, Re-1 will strive for continued improvement.
“Until all our students are proficient, our work is not done,” she said.
One area of concern is Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale. CRES had previously improved its scores after being classified by the state as a “priority improvement school,” but is back in that category this year with only 56 percent of students demonstrating proficiency.
Glenwood Springs Elementary was a little better at 63 percent proficient, while Sopris Elementary and Basalt Elementary were above the district average with 83 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
Re-1’s lone charter school, the Carbondale Community School, again had 100 percent of its third-graders test proficient or above, as it has in past years.
And this year all 23 third-graders at the state charter Ross Montessori School in Carbondale were 100 percent proficient or advanced.
Re-1 is looking at “targeted intervention” to get CRES back on track, with increased accountability and monitoring by both the district and the state.
“The school’s seen a lot of changes over the last few years, and I think they haven’t yet hit their stride,” Sirko said.
To a large extent, such variations may be out of a school’s control. Statewide, statistics show significant differences in performance between demographics. For instance, 74.5 percent of third-grade girls scored proficient or better, compared to 68.7 percent of boys.
Economic status can have a significant impact as well. Statewide, just 57 percent of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch were proficient.
Perhaps the most striking factor is native language. Only 45.5 percent of native Spanish speakers who took the test in English were proficient, compared to 76.9 percent for native English speakers.
Spanish-speaking students enrolled in fully bilingual programs were also given the option of taking the “Lectura” Spanish reading test, with 89 percent of Re-1 students and 65 percent of Colorado students testing proficient.
“It normally takes 3-5 years for students to gain proficiency in another language,” observed Sirko. “For a third-grader, they’re really just getting into those proficiency levels.”
District administration cautioned against putting too much stock in such trends. While demographics can explain short-term variations within schools, the district as a whole has seen improvement in scores even as it gains more native Spanish speakers.
“We have a lot more data mining to do before we can make some summary statements about what we think are causative factors,” said Sirko.
Stein stressed that the tests are just part of “a body of evidence” about a school’s success, adding that the district has been working hard to avoid “teaching to the test.”
“We think high quality instruction is the best preparation for any exam,” he asserted.
Sirko also concluded that testing and statistics only go so far.
“Behind every one of those numbers are little faces, and we need to make sure that we serve those students,” she said.
While the state releases preliminary third-grade reading scores in May, testing results for the remainder of the grade levels are released with the final report in August.