Colo. Officials Couldn't Be Happier With Low Scores

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Colorado's 4th graders performed poorly on the state's first-ever assessments in reading and writing based on model state standards, but state officials are hailing the results.

The Colorado Student Assessment showed that 57 percent of the 52,000 4th graders performed at the "proficient" or "advanced" level in reading, while just 31 percent were proficient or advanced in writing.

But Gov. Roy Romer and state education officials said the results show the state has raised the bar of expectations through its comprehensive standards and assessment system.

"We're happy to announce the worst test results in the history of the state," Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney said in an interview last week. "Unless you get bad results, it is highly doubtful you have done anything useful with your tests. Low scores have become synonymous with good tests."

Some political conservatives in the state take issue with that view. They say the test results can be manipulated easily in future years to show achievement gains that will be trumpeted by supporters of a failing public education system.

"There is no way you will be able to make the system reform itself," said Tom Tancredo, the president of the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colo., that supports school vouchers and other forms of educational choice.

The education system "is always going to be manipulating the data," he said.

Sober Warning

The new assessment system tested virtually every 4th grade student in Colorado's public schools. For the first time, parents will receive individual results for their children.

State officials were a bit wary about the public's reaction to the poor scores. So in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 12 release of the results, officials tried to soften the blow.

For example, Mr. Moloney wrote to local superintendents last month alerting them that the scores would be low but urging them to explain to parents the purpose of adopting standards and tougher assessments.

Late last month, Gov. Romer, a Democrat who helped push for the standards and assessment system, warned that the results would be "sobering."

"They will indicate that we're not doing as well as we thought we were doing in teaching children to read and write," he told The Denver Post.

The Colorado assessment system uses categories similar to those in the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress. Gov. Romer is a prominent supporter of national testing, and Mr. Moloney, who became Colorado's education commissioner in August, serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

The results show that in reading, 8 percent of Colorado 4th graders were advanced; 49 percent were proficient; 29 percent were "partially proficient"; and 11 percent were "unsatisfactory."

In writing, 3 percent of students were advanced; 28 percent were proficient; 43 percent were partially proficient; and 22 percent were unsatisfactory.

Mr. Moloney said Colorado educators and parents have become complacent with existing test results that show reasonably strong achievement levels but do not include individual results. Parents also don't realize the impact of grade inflation on the letter grades their children receive, he said.

"Until you have assessment results that go to parents, frankly, not much attention is given to them," he said.

Three elementary schools out of 79 in the Denver school district had no 4th graders score at the proficient or advanced level in writing.

The tests also revealed a disparity with results on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, which many districts in the state use. For example, 4th graders at Slavens Elementary School in Denver scored at the 61st percentile in reading on the Iowa test, but only 43 percent were at or above the proficient level on the Colorado assessment.

One explanation for the difference is that schools have been administering the Iowa test to fewer students, officials said.

Mr. Tancredo argued that the proficiency categories are of little use to parents.

"The state says go back and look at the [content] standards," he said. "Well, the standards are very nebulous."

Quotation Marks?

Mr. Tancredo said he became further alarmed after one of his colleagues participated in a session in which teachers from across the state set "bookmarks" on where to distribute the test scores among the proficiency categories.

He said the writing results would have been even worse if the teachers' panel had stuck with its initial proficiency levels. The panel made the writing levels less tough, he said, although it made the reading levels more difficult.

For example, the panel removed the proper use of quotation marks in writing as a factor in the proficiency levels, he said.

"If a 4th grader in Colorado doesn't need to know how to use quotation marks to be proficient in writing, the whole thing sort of loses its relevance," Mr. Tancredo said.

Mr. Moloney said the critics have their point of view, but "if the tests are honest, then they tell us where we are. Now, if we get better next year, that's not a bad thing."

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