Volume 2 Issue 1

Another Look At Jeffco Academic Performance

How Have Jeffco Students Fared in the Last Decade?

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by Tom Coyne
We are all invested in the success of the Jeffco public education system. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. So how has the system served the students who have entered the system in the last decade? To be sure, test scores do not give us the whole picture, but they are one objective measure of the performance of the system and a key indicator of how well our children are being served.

To examine this question, I analyzed the last eight years of publicly available CSAP/TCAP scores, and the 2013 results of the ACT, which is the last test every Colorado student takes before graduation. All of this data is publicly available on the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) website.

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The Colorado Growth Model uses TCAP scores to measure academic performance from third through 10th grade. TCAP uses a 150 to about 999 scoring scale to measure students’ progress up the learning curve over time. Each year, the minimum score for proficiency increases to reflect the progression of learning. So for example, if a third grader needs to score at least 419 to be proficient in math, then a fourth grader needs to score at least 455 to remain proficient. Over the past eight years, Jeffco’s grade-to-grade increases in average TCAP scale scores in math, writing, and reading have often been less than the increase in the minimum proficiency score. In other words, our students are falling behind what is needed to be proficient each year.

In 2013, 57 percent of Jeffco tenth graders were not proficient in math. Over the past eight years, 30,155 tenth-grade students have scored below proficient in math—about equal to the population of the City of Wheat Ridge. Or think about it this way: enough Jeffco tenth graders lacking needed math skills could fill the Pepsi Center TWICE. This pattern appears in the TCAP results for every student group, including special education and gifted students. (The full data set is available on k12accountability.org.)

It is also critical to note that the pattern of grade-to grade proficiency decline is not due to poverty. In 2013, 48 percent of tenth graders from middle- and higher income families were not proficient in math. For lower income Jeffco students, performance was much worse.

A stunning 80 percent of tenth graders eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program (F&R) fell short of proficiency. And lest you think, “Well, that is just how it goes, children in poverty can’t learn”; other states prove that’s not the case. In Massachusetts, where the state tests are much tougher than Colorado’s, only 37 percent of F&R tenth graders were not proficient in math.

Moreover, it does not appear that the root cause of this broad pattern of grade-to-grade proficiency decline is a lack of money. Evident before Jeffco’s budget cuts started in 2009, the decline has not worsened since then.

A reasonable question to ask is whether academic achievement substantially improves between 10th and 11th grade. Based on Jeffco’s 2013 ACT results, it does not. In 2013, 55 percent of all Jeffco 11th graders scored below the minimum math and reading scores for “college and career readiness.” In science, 61 percent fell below this mark.

These results are consistent with research findings by both CDE and the ACT organization. Both find that, because of the cumulative nature of learning, students who are significantly below the minimum proficient score in the middle school grades likely will never be ready for college and career, despite the Herculean efforts of their high school teachers. Yet high school diplomas are handed out to an increasing percentage of Jeffco students.

But what about the frequently made claim that Jeffco’s academic achievement performance is excellent because the district routinely outperforms the state on TCAP Median Growth Percentiles (MGP)? The key point here is that growth percentiles only measure the relative year-to-year scale score increase for students who all started out with the same previous year TCAP score.

A good analogy is to a running race in which 100 students start on the same line, and your child finishes in 24th place—that is, in the 75th percentile (assuming a 0 to 99 scale). While the finish tells you how well your child performed compared to others who started in the same place, that 75th percentile score says nothing at all about whether your daughter’s performance is good enough to earn her a college track scholarship. For that, you need to know her actual time, or, in the case of TCAP, her scale score.

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Consider this example: On the 2013 TCAP math tests, Jeffco had MGPs above the 50th percentile in every grade from 3rd to 10th. However, the cumulative increase of 152 scale score points between those grades was much less than the 208-point increase in the minimum score needed to show a child was proficient. As a result, the percent of Jeffco students who missed the mark in math more than doubled, from only 26 percent in third grade to 57 percent by 10th grade. Looking at the district level, Median Growth Percentile is a misleading measure of real achievement performance.

For me, the most frustrating aspect of Jeffco’s dismal track record over the past eight years is that there are many examples of individual schools in the district that have delivered significant academic improvements.

We have some great teachers and teams whose accomplishments should be recognized and rewarded.

However, despite spending almost a billion dollars per year, district leaders, previous Board of Education majorities, and District Accountability Committees have not been able to identify, understand, and/or scale up the innovations at these schools to improve Jeffco’s
overall academic achievement. Our kids have paid a heavy price for this failure.

It is time for the Jeffco community to come together and demand that the school board hold our school system and its leaders accountable. The board recently set higher (and measurable) academic achievement goals. While that is a good start, goals are not a strategy.

Tom Coyne is a former CEO, CFO, and management consultant, who advises corporate boards and works to improve K12 achievement performance. He is the chair of Wheat Ridge High School’s Accountability Committee and is a member of Jeffco’s Strategic
Planning Advisory Council/District Accountability Committee.