Middle-class Colorado students underperform on federal testing

Are the Colorado public schools that serve mostly middle-class students performing well? Lots of parents seem to think so. They may believe that student performance problems are limited to places like poor areas in Denver.

But the public schools serving many middle-class Colorado students are not performing as well as parents think, according to a new study from the Pacific Research Institute.

The PRI study first looked at how Colorado students from non-low-income families scored on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading exams in 2013. The NAEP is often referred to as “the nation’s report card” and is viewed as a gold-standard indicator of student performance.

On the NAEP eighth-grade math exam, 45 percent of these middle-class Colorado test-takers failed to score at the proficient level, which is defined as having full competency over the subject matter.

On the NAEP eighth-grade reading exam, nearly half – 48 percent – of middle-class Colorado test-takers failed to score at the proficient level.

Scores on Colorado state tests, such as the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, are significantly out of line with the NAEP scores.

A recent study of all Colorado students by the education research organization Achieve found that 9 percent more students scored “proficient” on the TCAP eighth-grade math exam than on the NAEP. Over one-quarter more scored “proficient” on the TCAP eighth-grade reading exam than on the NAEP.

Given these large differences, it’s understandable that the PRI study found few middle-class elementary and middle schools where over half of students in a grade failed to meet proficiency on a 2014 TCAP math or reading test.

The performance of middle-class high schools, on the other hand, is another story. Among the 103 Colorado high schools with predominantly non-low-income student populations, three-quarters had at least one grade level where over half the students failed to reach proficiency on a state exam.

A number of these underperforming schools were in the Colorado Springs area.

At Rampart High School, just 12 percent of students were classified as economically disadvantaged. Yet on the 2014 ninth-grade TCAP math exam, half of Rampart High students failed to score at the proficient level. Fifty-three percent of tenth-graders failed to achieve proficiency on the math test.

At Vista Ridge High School, 18 percent of students were classified as economically disadvantaged. But 57 percent of ninth-graders failed to achieve proficiency on the 2014 TCAP math exam, and 70 percent of tenth graders failed to do so.

Given such large proficiency failures, it’s not surprising that parents are upset. Parent comments for Vista Ridge on the website great schools.net are largely negative. One parent wrote, “My son has graduated by the skin of his teeth yet he doesn’t deserve to.”

So what are such parents to do?

Unfortunately, the Colorado Supreme Court has closed the door on the use of local school-choice vouchers to help parents find better alternatives for their children.

However, there are other tools that should be considered by Colorado policymakers.

Tax credit programs, like those currently in place in Illinois, allow individuals to claim tax credits for educational expenses, such as private-school tuition.

Alternatively, under an education-savings-account program, the state deposits funds into individual accounts that parents can use to pay for education expenses – including private-school tuition, tutoring, and online education.

Every child, regardless of family background, should have the right to a good education. If the neighborhood public school isn’t providing it, the child should be able to go somewhere else.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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