Some Basalt, Carbondale students struggle with language, official says

By Katie Redding, The Aspen Times July 30, 2008

ASPEN — In Roaring Fork Valley education, state standardized test scores follow the geography.

In Aspen schools, the number of students testing at or above grade level in reading, writing and math beat the state average every time, according to Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores released Tuesday.

In Basalt, the number of students testing at or above grade level in reading, writing and math was higher than than the state average only about 20 percent of the time.

In Carbondale, the number of students testing at or above grade level in reading, writing and math was lower than the state average every time.

Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Judy Haptonstall attributed the performance of the Carbondale and Basalt schools to their large numbers of English-language learners.

In most cases, she said, the district’s English-language learners perform well above state averages, “dispelling the myth that native English-speaking students in schools with significant second-language populations aren’t learning at the same level as their peers in schools with predominate English-speaking populations,” she said in a press release.

“Between the consistent increase in second-language students and the state’s insistence in including those students who haven’t had the time to learn to speak the language, let alone understand the content vocabulary, we will never fare well in comparison to state averages,” Haptonstall said.

Each year in February and March, all Colorado public school students between third and 10th grade take the CSAP test. The CSAP started in 1997 with two tests and has grown to include 31 tests in 2008.

Initial scores, released by the Colorado Department of Education on Tuesday, will be followed by more in-depth reports later this year. Results for students at the Aspen and Carbondale community schools were not released Tuesday.

Aspen

“In general our scores were as strong as they have been,” said Aspen Superintendent Diana Sirko.

She noted that not only did the district have many students in the proficient category, it also had many in the advanced category, indicating that the district was continuing to meet the needs of its top students.

With regard to the few areas in which scores declined, she argued that a smaller student body could be affecting the result. If the 10th-grade class drops from 120 students to 80, for example, the students who don’t perform as well will impact the percentages more.

However, she also said that the district will still use the scores to identify areas for improvement. The Aspen School District employs a computer program that closely evaluates student test scores to identify sub-content areas — such as problem-solving, computation or reading comprehension — in need of more focus.

Administrators and teachers work together in the first few weeks of the school year to determine areas of strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum, based on the CSAP scores, Sirko said.

But she also cautioned that the CSAP test is only one of many indictors the district uses when it is editing its instructional content. While the CSAP gives the district “a nice snapshot of how our kids are doing on a specific set of standards,” she noted that a variety of data always makes a measurement more accurate.

Basalt and Carbondale

Reading scores continue to increase for students in the Roaring Fork District, Haptonstall said.

Noting that reading is, in general, an area of strength for the district, she said focused instruction will be used next year for students who are not reading at grade level. Most of those students are second-language learners, she added.

In the test’s math portion, the district also saw some increases, which Haptonstall attributed to changes in the instructional program. However, she noted that the math portion of the CSAP test has been tough on everyone in the state. And while it would seem that math is a content area in which English-languate learners are not as hindered by the language barrier, she said the test is very reading-based.

“So those students not proficient in reading are unable to demonstrate their math achievement,” Haptonstall said.

Writing was one of the strongest areas for the Basalt and Carbondale schools, said Haptonstall, who added that writing was a content area on which teachers in those schools had spent a lot of time and energy.

In general, CSAP results indicate that the district needs to continue increasing the academic performance of its English-language learners while still serving the needs of its proficient and advanced students, she noted.

In a pilot program, the Colorado Department of Education next year will provide additional dollars and expertise to the district to help it examine how best to serve both second-language learners and advanced students.

The future of CSAP

Starting this year, the Department of Education will begin measuring students’ growth on the CSAP relative to other students’ growth (as opposed to simply measuring their scores).

This so-called longitudinal data is expected to help educators understand both a student’s growth and the student’s progress relative to other students. The data will also help educators gauge whether students are on track to be where they want to be next year.

Sirko compared the new measurement tool to the charts doctors use to help parents understand what height and weight percentile their children are in.

Sirko, who was on the statewide longitudinal growth committee, is also on another statewide committee that is both rewriting Colorado standards and trying to determine whether the CSAP is the best test for all students.

For example, she noted, 10th graders might be better served by taking other tests such as the pre-ACT or the PSAT. A test linked to college preparation might be more “meaningful” for those students, Sirko said.

“What we see more and more is that it’s pretty tough to get kids excited about taking the CSAP,” she said.