On Thursday, the Colorado Department of Education released the results of standardized tests taken by third- through eighth-graders in the spring of 2021.
The Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) scores showed significant decreases in performance from 2019 to 2021 across all student groups and subject areas. There was also a significant decline in student participation in the assessments, leading some to question if the tests provide an accurate measure of grade-level proficiency in 2021.
The CMAS tests were canceled in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2021 Colorado Legislative Session, lawmakers passed a bill reducing the number of tests students would take in 2021: third-, fifth-, and seventh-graders took only the English language arts component, while fourth-, sixth- and eighth-graders took the math component. No social studies or science assessments were given.
In a statement, Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said, “These test results give us sobering data that confirm just how hard last year was with school closures, class quarantines and remote learning.”
The biggest declines across the board were in math. Also, females’ scores declined more than males, and Black and Hispanic students’ scores fell more than their peers from other race and ethnicity backgrounds.
Here is a breakdown of 2021 versus 2019 for the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards in math and English language arts:
- Third grade ELA: 39.1% vs. 41.3%
- Fourth grade math: 28.5% vs. 33.6%
- Fifth grade ELA: 47.2% vs. 48.4%
- Sixth grade math: 24.1% vs. 29.5%
- Seventh grade ELA: 42.6% vs. 46.5%
- Eighth grade math: 29.5% vs. 36.9%
The Colorado Department of Education reports overall participation in the tests dropped between 20 and 30 percentage points from the 2019 participation rates.
Parents are allowed to opt students out of tests, but in 2019, participation rates were as high as 96.9%.
2021 participation levels fell across all grades and subject areas.
Below are the rates of 2021 CMAS participation for math and ELA:
- Third grade ELA: 76.2%
- Fourth grade math: 75.7%
- Fifth grade ELA: 74.4%
- Sixth grade math: 68.6%
- Seventh grade ELA: 63.7%
- Eighth grade math: 57.9%
CDE also released participation rates for the SAT and PSAT tests administered in the spring. Participation fell by 20.8 percentage points for ninth-graders taking the PSAT, and 19.3 percentage points for 10th-graders.
SAT participation fell 13.1 percentage points.
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, cautioned that because of low participation rates, the test results are not comparable to previous years’ scores.
“We already know that the past 16 months have been devastating for many children and their families. We didn't need the CMAS scores to tell us that. And we know that the burdens fell disproportionately on already marginalized communities,” Welner said.
State Rep. Colin Larson, a Republican who supported administering the 2021 tests, said the data is important for policy makers to have.
“Rather than grouse over whether the data is applicable, we need to just take it and say, 'OK, you know, clearly something is wrong. Let’s use this imperfect data to try to inform our interventions and get ahead of this,'” Larson said.
Federal COVID-19 relief funding will be used for student interventions including intensive tutoring. While most applaud additional funding and resources directed at Colorado students, Welner said we shouldn’t be using pre-pandemic standards as a basis for interventions.
“There is no God-given level that every fourth-grader should have in math,” Welner said. “We need to set aside these preexisting expectations and understand the needs that kids are coming back to school with."