PARCC results highlight disparity between Aurora’s two public school districts

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AURORA | Students in Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District showed slight improvements in math and English language arts testing last school year, according to new district-level state test results released by the state Department of Education Thursday, Sept. 1.

By and large, the percentage of APS and CCSD students who met or exceeded state expectations on math and English exams, which were administered to students in grades 3-9 last spring, was slightly up over last year’s averages.

However, the results painted a familiar picture of Aurora’s two public school districts: Cherry Creek comfortably outpaced state averages, while APS lagged behind.

Cherry Creek students bested state averages at every grade level on both the language arts and math tests — often by double digits. No batch of APS students at any grade level in either test — outside of a small number of students, about 170, in eighth and ninth grade who took a geometry exam — matched the averages of their peers across the state.

“Overall, we’re pretty stable,” said Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for CCSD. “We mirror the state trends. Where state averages went up, we went up, and where state averages went down, we saw some declines, as well.”

Amole said that the district implemented a new elementary school math curriculum last year that appeared to have improved subject scores for those grade levels. Compared to last year’s math scores, student scores improved by 3.6 percentage points in third grade, 4.9 percentage points in fourth grade and 7.4 points in fifth grade.

Amole added that looking at just two years of test results is not enough to discern any trends. That analysis can only begin in earnest next year.

“We don’t really have a baseline yet,” she said. “We could consider this to be the baseline, and then we would compare that to next year — spring of 2017. Then we will have a better way of determining the growth or the trends.

Shimmers of optimism appeared in the web of APS’ checkered test scores, as the district saw an uptick in several areas. APS fifth graders showed the biggest gain, as the percentage of students in grade five who hit state standards on the math assessment increased 5.8 percentage points over 2015.

“Several schools including Boston K-8, Yale Elementary, Aurora Frontier P-8, Murphy Creek P-8, Mrachek and Columbia middle schools showed significant gains on grade-level assessments in English language arts and math,” APS Superintendent Rico Munn said in a statement. “We are seeing our students making important gains and are confident that we can build on this momentum.”

Still, APS’ scores trailed Colorado averages. Only 13.7 percent of APS eighth graders met or exceeded expectations in math. And while that performance is about 1.8 percentage points higher than last year, it’s about seven percentage points behind the state average.

Offered through the roughly dozen-state consortium known as PARCC, the tests were designed to be more difficult than their predecessor, the TCAP. The state administered the tests for the first time in 2015 in an effort to better measure the state’s relatively new Colorado Measures for Academic Success (CMAS).

Only students in grades three through nine took PARCC tests in English and math this year after a 2015 state law reduced the number of tests students take each year. Last year, the tests were also administered to 10th and 11th graders.

Mirroring last year’s trend, participation rates for older students paled in comparison to the rates of their younger peers. Participation rates in APS peaked in fourth grade with about 98.6 percent of students at that grade level who took the tests. Only about 70 percent of APS ninth graders took the tests, which marked the lowest participation rate in the district. In CCSD, third graders led participation rates with about 96 percent of students at that level taking the tests. Only about 60 percent of Cherry Creek ninth graders took the exams.

Parents are allowed to excuse students from exams. And although federal law dictates school districts are required to administer state tests to 95 percent of their students, the state board of education decided in 2015 that districts will not be penalized for failing to meet that requirement due to parent excusals, according to the Department of Education.

Just as she did when state-level results were released last month, Colorado’s Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes cautioned parents against jumping to conclusions, and encouraged them to analyze the participation rates at their student’s specific school.

“Parents should look carefully at both the scores and the participation rates in their children’s schools, because low participation can impact how well the results represent their school as a whole,” Anthes said.