by Nate Braden
This week the results came in from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) – the battery of language arts and math tests the state gives to all public school students in grades 3-8.
As usual, they were mediocre. The number of students in Colorado who are proficient in Language Arts stands at 44.5% – up 2.2% from last year. The number who are proficient in math is 34.1% – up a whopping 1.3% from 2017.
There was one bright spot. Math scores for eighth-graders improved dramatically – 7.2%. If scores rose this much across the board, we could break out the party hats and claim light at the end of the tunnel. However, overall math proficiency for eighth-graders is still a dismal 28.2%. When you’re that low, there’s nowhere to go but up.
This mediocrity has been pretty much routine since statewide testing began here more than twenty years ago. A little bit up, a little bit down, but nothing seems to move the needle much.
Which begs the question: how important are these scores? If they go up, everyone in public education says, “see, we told you we knew what we were doing”. If they go down, the same people say, “well, test scores aren’t the only measure of academic success.”
The thing is, there has to be some way to mark progress among students and compare it to other schools. Like it or not, standardized tests are the only way to do this. You certainly can’t rely on grade point averages anymore, now that they routinely go up to 5.0 and a B is considered average.
Nonetheless, these tests vary from state to state. Colorado is one of the 42 that have adopted the Common Core Standards Initiative since 2010. These tests are tougher than the old versions and are supposed to more accurately assess critical thinking skills. They are not without controversy, however, especially when it comes to the way they test math.
Like it or not, the old SAT may still be the best gauge of math and verbal aptitude. It’s been around long enough that several studies have been done linking high SAT scores with career and earnings success. Colleges still use them because they really are the only way to objectively discern applications from overachieving teenagers who are all the most brilliant in their class and write about how much they’re going to change the world when they graduate.
Personally, I would like them to start with showing up on time to their first job, putting in an eight-hour day, and getting my sandwich order right at Subway. Let’s see if you can master those basic skills before you try bringing peace to the Middle East.
But I digress. If we can agree that SATs are still the best way to measure raw academic success, then Colorado is on the right track in administering this test as early as 9th grade. All ninth-graders here must take the Pre-SAT, with tenth and eleventh-graders taking the regular SAT. The state legislature has mandated this and I think it’s a good move, because even though not all high school graduates will go on to college they should at least have the choice, and a higher SAT score broadens their options.
What should they shoot for? Our flagship university – CU Boulder – requires an average SAT score of 1250 for incoming freshmen. This is out of a maximum score of 1600. How prepared are Colorado high school students to meet this threshold?
You be the judge. The average PSAT score for 9th-graders this year was 902. For 10th-graders it was 944, and for 11th-graders, 1014. The highest averages were, predictably, in the wealthier districts, including Boulder itself. Its 11th-graders averaged a score of 1139 – probably because all their parents work at the university.
Here at Mile High Ed we use the Lexile reading test. It’s not as well-known as the SAT but most educators are familiar with the score range. We have made it company policy to test our students immediately before each retreat or school intervention and then immediately after. We administer it online, it doesn’t take very long (30 to 40 minutes), and it gives students their scores right away.
That doesn’t tell us everything about their abilities, of course, which is why we take them to the Air Force Academy’s Leadership Reaction Course the next day. Among their tasks on this course is to break out of a POW camp using nothing but a rope and their own wits. Now THAT’S a test.