Poor PARCC participation rates for Garfield Re-2 high school students
A smaller percentage of students in Garfield Re-2 School District, particularly at the high school level, participated in the new PARCC assessments last spring compared with statewide numbers that also revealed a decline in participation at the high school level.
“We definitely had a challenge with the participation rates in our district,” said Julie Knowles, director of assessment and special programs for Garfield Re-2.
District results and participation rates for the new English language assessment and math assessment were released Friday, one month after the release of statewide results that showed a decline at the high school level.
Statewide, only 54 percent of high school juniors took the English language assessment, with rates ticking up at the under-class level. Still, only 71 percent of high school freshmen took the assessment — well below the 95 percent participation rate benchmark established under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Participation rates for the math assessments in high school were similarly disappointing statewide.
In Garfield Re-2, participation rates for high school students at every level and for both assessments were lower than the statewide numbers. Only 15 percent of high school juniors took the English language assessment.
Participation rates for younger students — the assessments were administered to students in grades three through 11 — were much stronger both statewide and in Re-2.
There are several explanations for the decline at the high school level, Knowles said. Some parents viewed the new tests, which replaced the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, or TCAP, tests, as optional, like going out for basketball.
The test was administered last spring when many students were taking exams for advanced placement and international baccalaureate courses, as well as exams for dual enrollment at Colorado Mountain College.
Other reasons were more political. Standardized tests have become a politically controversial issue in Colorado and across the country, with some arguing against what they see as overreach by the federal government in matters that should be handled locally and others worrying that students are being over tested.
In the fall of 2014, high school students on the Front Range walked out of classes in protest of the new Colorado Measures of Academic Success. The Colorado General Assembly took up the issue earlier this year by passing a bill reducing the amount of time high school students spend taking standardized tests, among other things.
And just earlier this week, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan bill replacing No Child Left Behind. The new law was described as a reduction in the federal government’s role in K-12 education.
While the headlines in Colorado were largely to the east, the controversy over standardized testing exploded in Re-2 last spring as the new PARCC assessments were being administered.
“It was a perfect storm of social media blowing up over the weekend and [the district] simply not having enough time to contact the families and get more information to them,” Knowles said. “The first week in things were going pretty smoothly and then over the weekend it hit Twitter and Facebook … and by Monday the phones are ringing so fast and off the hook that principals can’t answer the phone calls quickly enough and they can’t return phone calls quickly enough.”
When principals were able to talk with parents and explain the benefit of having more complete data, some of them changed their mind, according to Knowles.
The benefit of having more time to talk with parents was evident in the participation rates for Re-2’s two high schools.
Rifle High started administering the test earlier than Coal Ridge High School, which gave staff more time to communicate with families wanting to pull their children out of the assessments. Comparatively, Rifle High had stronger participation rates than Coal Ridge.
In reviewing the data from this first round of testing, Knowles said it is very apparent the district needs to do a better job communicating with families about the tests. To do so, the district is informing a communication committee on the subject.
The low participation rates carry several potentially negative implications.
While the new federal act signed into law earlier this week changes certain aspects of education policy, the 95 percent participation threshold established in No Child Left Behind remains.
Failing to meet that number could affect a district’s accreditation level, and in theory could jeopardize federal funding, although there currently is not an indication that would happen.
Similarly, the bill passed by the Colorado Legislature granted a one-year time-out preventing districts from being penalized in the form of a lowered accreditation level for poor test results.
Statewide and in Re-2, large portions of students statewide failed to meet or exceed expectations, due to increased rigor of the assessments.
While participation rates do not add to a district’s accreditation score, failing to meet the 95 percent threshold can lower a district’s accreditation by one level.
Beyond accreditation and funding, low participation rates make it harder to assess the needs within a specific school, because results are reflective of only a few students, Knowles said.
The reason for the 95 percent threshold, Knowles went on to explain, was to ensure that every child, including those who might be disadvantaged and historically left out of standardized testing, was being measured and had an equal opportunity.
Without comprehensive test results, it’s near impossible to assess the need of the greater student population.
“That’s another concern about the participation rates is that we may not have an accurate picture of the needs in the building when you look at subgroups that traditionally underperform and who are maybe the most vulnerable to developing those 21st century skills and to be college and career ready. And so that’s some very high stakes — high stakes not because of accountability, it’s high stakes in human lives.”
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