Do Coloradans’ mixed attitudes about public schools reflect school performance? In my recent column on public perception, I mentioned the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I figured that, to get a good sense of how Colorado schools are actually performing, results from that test are a good place to start.
What is the NAEP, you ask? According to the Department of Education, it “is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what students in public and private schools in the United States know and are able to do in various subjects.”
To get a better sense of the particulars, if you go to the NAEP main page, you can pull up past test questions. If you like you can play your own game of “Are you smarter than a fourth grader?”
A sampling of questions
One question from fourth-grade math shows a to-scale image of five trees and asks “which tree’s height is about half of the height of” the first tree shown. This is an easy question; my second-grader got it right in under a minute. Surprisingly, though, in 2017, only 60% of tested fourth-graders nationally got this question right. The most-popular wrong answer was a tree twice the height of the first. I have to believe that the problem for the 40% of the students who missed it is simply that they could not read and understand the question.
Let’s try a twelfth-grade question. “If x is a real number, what are all values of x for which x>-3 and x<5?” Compare to: “If x is a real number, what are all values of x for which x>-3 or x<5?” In case you missed it, the difference is “and” versus “or.” Is this the same set of real numbers, or not? The answer is that the “or” means that the statement refers to all real numbers.
Most students bombed this question. Only 7% got it fully correct, while another 15% got partial credit. Conceptually, this is not too hard of a question for an older student. Again, I suspect that most students simply did not understand what the question was asking. Or maybe they had never seriously practiced working with number lines. (Compare: Although my second grader is familiar with number lines and with negative numbers, he did not know how to approach this question.)
Now consider a fourth-grade reading question. Students were asked to read a story called “Five Boiled Eggs,” about a boy who borrows a meal and an innkeeper who later tries to take advantage of him, then answer questions. The first question is straightforward: “What did the boy do to become successful?” The answer is from the text: “He became a sea merchant and traveled to many places.” Stunningly, only 51% of students got that right.
That should give you some sense of some of the contents of the test. If you want a fuller picture, feel free to pull up questions for yourself.
How Colorado stacks up
So how do Colorado students do? We have results from before the pandemic, which created unique challenges for many schools. (By contrast, the pandemic did not much affect my family’s homeschooling.) In a 2019 release, the Colorado Department of Education brags that “Colorado 4th and 8th graders continue to outperform nation.” But how good is that, really?
Results showed substantial gaps between the performance of black and Hispanic students versus white students. (See a recent Denver Post article about trends regarding Latino students.) Overall, only 40% of fourth-grade students “performed at or above proficient” levels in reading, while 44% performed that well in math. Only 71% “performed at or above basic” level in reading, while 80% performed that well in math. The numbers for eighth graders were not too different.
Bear in mind that only “3,200 fourth-grade students in 170 public schools” in Colorado took the test. The Department of Education says, “Each of these assessments/studies is based on a representative sample of the student population of the state and the nation and none are designed to produce individual district, school or student data.”
If 71% to 80% strikes you as pretty good, bear in mind that these numbers mean that Colorado schools are largely failing at least a fifth of the students tested. I think it’s safe to say that students who cannot meet basic standards for this test are functionally illiterate or nearly so, at least in English.
That last caveat is important: The state shows that around 12% of Colorado’s 887,000 students this past school year were in “English Learners” programs. Moreover, as a 2018 document from the Migration Policy Institute indicates, children with one or more foreign-born parents are more likely to be lower-income, so some of those kids face a double whammy. Unsurprisingly, Denver, partly because of relatively high numbers of English Learners, tends to do worse with the test relative to the nation and the state.
Barely competent doesn’t cut it
Part of the point of public schools, though, is to help compensate for whatever disadvantages children might have. Anyway, students having trouble with English because it is not their first language can explain only part of the problem of low test scores.
Anecdotes published by Chalkbeat help to illustrate some of the problems. Some discussed problems with dyslexia. One Colorado teacher said, “I observe the effects of limited reading skills on a daily basis. Kids lack self confidence, they can’t access the reading content assigned in their core classes, they turn to other avenues for affirmation, usually social media and behaviors that distract from their academic struggles.”
Schools need to teach kids how to read and do math, regardless of their background. And generally we should expect students to be proficient in their subjects, not just barely competent. Obviously public schools often are not succeeding.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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