Roaring Fork superintendent: Lagging test scores, learning gaps show need to help every student succeed
New Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Jesús Rodríguez admits he cringes a bit whenever someone suggests the new school year signals a return to pre-pandemic “normal.”
If normal means no longer policing students, staff and school visitors over mask requirements, or not having to send students home for quarantine, he’s all for it.
But the stark reality is that “normal” isn’t good enough when it comes to student academic achievement in district schools.
“As a field, in education we perhaps missed an opportunity to think of school differently during the pandemic,” Rodríguez said.
“If ‘back to normal’ means teaching and learning the same way we were teaching and learning in 2019, then we still haven’t arrived at fulfilling our mission,” he said.
Lower scores, persisting gaps
The reality is, when it comes to the latest data around standardized test scores, schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt are pretty much right back where they were three years ago.
Results from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests administered for public school students in grades 3-8 in the spring showed a 6.3% decline overall from 2019 to 2022 in students meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations in English Language Arts.
That means just under a third of Roaring Fork Schools students are meeting or exceeding English Language Arts expectations — nearly 10% below the state average of 42.2%.
That’s concerning, but perhaps more concerning and even more unacceptable for district leaders is the huge gap in achievement between Hispanic students, including those just learning English, and white students.
White students in the Roaring Fork Schools are right on pace with the state in their English language achievement, at 54.9% meeting or exceeding expectations.
Hispanic students in the district lost ground in those three years, with 16.6% of Roaring Fork District students meeting or exceeding expectations, compared to the state average of 25.7%.
Among students just beginning to learn English, only 4.4% of Roaring Fork students met or exceeded expectations in the latest round of testing, compared to the state average of 7.9%.
The disparities are similar for testing in math skills.
“And we had those same disparities back in 2019,” Rodríguez said.
As for the missed opportunity to change some things, he still has hope.
“I don’t think it’s too late to be innovative and creative, and even just open to doing some things differently in teaching and learning,” Rodríguez said.
For Rodrîguez, it all comes back to the Roaring Fork Schools’ mission statement: “Roaring Fork Schools will ensure every student develops the enduring knowledge, skills and character to thrive in a changing world.”
He’s purposeful in italicizing the words every and thrive whenever he talks to school leaders, teachers or community groups.
Although there are other measures of student success aside from testing, the CMAS tests for elementary and middle school students and the SAT Suite tests for high schoolers remain the most quantifiable way to determine if students are meeting grade-level benchmarks in core subjects, Rodríguez said.
“What the latest test scores told us loud and clear, is that there are some pretty huge disparities between certain subgroups of students who are not meeting expectations on those grade-level benchmarks, and another subgroup of students for whom many more of them are.”
That means the district needs to step up its focus on narrowing those achievement gaps.
“Even if we’re successful there, we’re still going to have a third of our kids not meeting expectations,” he said.
“We should be having 100% of our students, whether they’re white, Latinx, or whatever, meeting expectations on language arts and in mathematics. If we’re not, we should be responding to that as an emergency.”
School board goals
School board members, at their Aug. 24 meeting, were of the same mind that the drop in test scores for the district were not unexpected given the anticipated learning slide coming out of the pandemic.
But the extreme slide for the district’s Hispanic students was particularly concerning, board member Kenny Teitler said.
“Our English learners are not accelerating,” he said. “If we look at the data, we see that whites have stayed level or gone ahead, but we have this one group that’s not making it … and there’s nothing in particular in our strategic priorities and initiatives to specifically address these subgroups of students who are struggling and not making it.”
Short of including some specifics in the upcoming revision to the district’s strategic plan, Teitler suggested making the achievement gap a stronger focus in the board’s goals.
Board President Kathryn Kuhlenberg agreed.
“We all knew this was coming … but it’s not OK,” she said. “We do need to make concerted effort as a board to address this in our strategic initiatives.”
Board member Maureen Stepp added that the district shouldn’t be satisfied with simply being on par with state averages.
“We always compare ourselves to the state levels, but to me the state levels are really low, so we’re just shooting for the middle,” she said. “That’s not good enough.”
The district also expects to get a good gauge on how its youngest students are doing when it reviews the first round of data from the state’s READ Act requirements, which are to be presented to the board next week.
The READ Act is aimed at ensuring students in grades kindergarten through the first part of third grade are provided the skills to be at grade level by the time they take the CMAS tests in the spring of their third grade year.
“We haven’t done an analysis here in the Roaring Fork Schools, but I was involved with one in Denver,” Rodriguez said. “What it found is that, if you have a third grader meeting expectations on the CMAS tests, they will continue to meet those expectations in fourth, fifth, sixth grades and on up.
“And, ultimately, when they take the SATs in high school they will be college-ready,” he said. “The opposite is also true, that if they are not meeting those grade-level expectations, it becomes more challenging to graduate students who are college and career ready.”
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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