Cherry Creek School District test scores see little change

Schools’ improvement in state ratings system a highlight, district says

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The high-performing Cherry Creek School District put up numbers comparable to last year on its 2019 standardized test scores, but officials emphasized that those statistics are only one part of the story in the district’s performance.

“The test scores are one data point,” said Michael Giles, a Cherry Creek assistant superintendent. “We’re trying to develop our own internal measures as well to look at the whole child.”

In the 2019 season for the tests, called the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, the Cherry Creek district saw similar overall numbers in how many students met or exceeded expectations compared to 2018: The numbers fell by percentage-point decreases of 0.1 in math and 1.5 in science, along with a 0.5 percentage-point gain in English.

The tests mostly involve elementary and middle school students, although 11th-graders also take science.

“Basically, we’re seeing we’re maintaining — we’re pretty consistent,” Giles said. The “district went through a change in leadership. Sometimes, you wonder how that’s going to impact our performance, but we’re not seeing a dip, we’re seeing consistency.”

The number most surprising was a downtick of 8 percentage points in high school science. But there is a trend of lower participation in the tests for older Cherry Creek students, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

“There tends to be more buy-in from our community to the college entrance exams — PSAT, SAT,” said Norm Alerta, Cherry Creek’s director of assessment and performance analytics.

When the state made the shift from TCAP — or Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the old standards — to the current Common Core standards, Cherry Creek was one of the districts that pushed back against the change, which could contribute to lower participation, Alerta said.

“We haven’t dug into who’s participating and whether that contributes to drops we see,” Alerta added.

The results do show points to celebrate, though — eighth-graders posted a 5 percentage-point gain in English.

What’s more, even affluent districts aren’t putting up numbers that appear impressive on first glance: Overall, Cherry Creek saw 39% of students meet or exceed expectations in science, 43% in math and 51% in English.

But that’s still ahead by double-digit margins compared to nearby districts Englewood and Sheridan, whose populations are generally lower-income. Studies have shown lower-income students are more likely to experience early childhood stress, less access to educational resources and less exposure to language early in life — factors linked to lower academic achievement, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Statewide, 46% of students met or exceeded expectations in English.

Asked if the standards themselves are too harsh, Giles said: “It’s a question on many people’s minds. I won’t comment on whether they’re too high.”

“We’re trying to use the state measures as well as our own internal measures to measure success,” he added.

Looking ahead

Cherry Creek district is “poised to go in a positive trajectory,” said Giles, whose position focuses on performance improvement.

“We’re always striving for excellence, which is our motto, so we don’t want to send the message that we’re satisfied with our scores,” Giles said. He added that the district “put in a strategic alignment plan to move our students’ performance to the next level.”

The district is entering its first year of implementing that strategic plan, named Future Forward, said Abbe Smith, Cherry Creek spokesperson.

In mapping out its vision, the district leaned on the support of parents, principals, teachers and district staff in meetings and conversations, the district’s website says. It plans to focus on closing disparities in achievement with “relevant learning experiences” and to invest in racially and “culturally competent” employees, among other broad strategies, the site says.

Moving up

In the system of state performance ratings for schools, Cherry Creek had a lot to celebrate, Alerta said.

Colorado uses a hierarchy of “performance,” “improvement,” “priority improvement” and “turnaround” status — in that order from best to worst — to designate how well schools fare. Priority improvement and turnaround schools are assigned plans to raise performance.

Schools and districts under those statuses have five years before “significant action must be taken” by the state, according to the state Department of Education website. That’s referred to as the “accountability clock.”

Those that don’t improve in that time frame can face a range of interventions, all the way up to closure or conversion to a charter school, according to Chalkbeat.org, a nonprofit news outlet that covers education. Ratings are largely based on the CMAS test results, but they also consider PSAT and SAT scores and high school graduation and dropout rates, among some other factors.

This year, Cherry Creek had seven more schools that were identified as performance schools — up to 50 from last year’s 43, Alerta said. It also improved to just 10 improvement schools from 15 last year. The district now has two schools that have been newly identified as priority improvement status, but it plans to appeal the rating, Smith said.

And all of the district’s four priority improvement schools from last year moved out of that status this year, Alerta added.

“That, for us,” Alerta said, “is the big celebration.”

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