Aspen School Board reviews state testing results

Data inconclusive given factors of a pandemic year

Aspen High School seniors, wearing their caps and gowns, take part in the annual March of the Graduates on Friday, May 28, 2021, on the Aspen School District campus.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

After a year without it, Aspen School District students settled back into standardized tests this spring with the Colorado Measures Of Academic Success (CMAS) test for middle grades and the PSAT and SAT for high schoolers.

So how do student scores compare to years past? Well, it’s not really all that conclusive just yet, said Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry, who presented the data at a school board meeting Tuesday.

“It’s still a good data set we’re working with, (but) we have to be very careful making conclusions from it without there being triangulation or corroborative data from other sources,” Mulberry said.

Yes, there are some general findings that can be culled from this year’s aggregate data: on the whole, Aspen students participated in this year’s state testing at a higher rate than all students in the state on both optional and required tests.

And generally speaking, students in the district performed better in English and language arts sections — commonly referred to as ELA — than they did in math, based on the percentage of students who met or exceeded expectations in each of those subjects at each grade level.

(Third, fifth and seventh graders were required to complete the English and language arts section of the CMAS test but could choose whether they took the math section; vice versa for fourth, sixth and eighth graders. Science also was required for eighth graders.)

Also, Aspen students in most grades outperformed students throughout the state, with a couple of exceptions: fourth grade and fifth grade scores in both ELA and math sections also are among the “areas of focus” moving forward.

But in-person learning had more than its fair share of fits and starts; some tests were optional this year, so some groups of students may be over or underrepresented in the results; participation rates fluctuated locally and across the state, and lower participation means a single score could have a disproportionate impact on the stats.

Plus, testing data isn’t available from 2020 because the pandemic hit just before testing usually takes place in the spring and the state canceled CMAS tests for that school year; Superintendent David Baugh called it a mulligan.

All of those factors make it hard to determine exactly how well the district is doing compared to the state at large and compared to the district’s own scores from recent years. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison if ever there was one (or, maybe, considering the total curveball that the pandemic threw, it’s perhaps more like apples to boomerangs or radiators).

Instead, the data from this year’s tests might be better viewed as a baseline for future comparison rather than a point to compare to the past, Mulberry suggested.

The 2021 tests were administered nearly a year into the pandemic and could function as a benchmark for improvement and growth year over year moving forward in an education system that continues to be impacted by COVID-19, albeit significantly less so this school year than it was the last.

Board member Katy Frisch also saw the 2021 data as an opportunity to identify how the school can help students catch up after a year of learning disruptions; that work would likely involve looking at individual rather than aggregate scores and possibly incorporating Star assessments, which also test progress and are administered more frequently.

“What ground do we need to make up for the kids this year? … What I suspect is — and I think is a pretty common sense thing to suspect — that a lot of kids missed a lot of curriculum last year,” Frisch said.

It would be especially key for older students for whom courses increasingly rely on prerequisite knowledge.

“It’s very important for those individual students to understand where they stand and what they missed, because it’s not necessarily what the classroom didn’t teach. It’s what they weren’t around for, what they were distracted for and all the different things that happened last year that caused losses in learning,” Frisch said.

Moving forward, district administrators will look at the data with that “corroborative data” that Mulberry mentioned in mind; there’s a lot more to unpack beyond the bar graphs presented this week.

The district also has a slew of curriculum updates already in the works, including several literacy initiatives, an “Illustrative Math” curriculum in the middle school, some high school courses and an “IB for All” effort to implement an International Baccalaureate curriculum across the elementary, middle and high schools.

And boosting test participation even higher is still one of the “areas of focus” for the district, according to a highlight summary included in the presentation.