EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Local schools' test scores have reflected the state average the past few years, but school district officials say they're pushing hard toward the upper tier.
After a significant drop in 2006, the Eagle County School District has been tracking near the statewide average in recent years, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
In this year's standardized tests, almost three-quarters of local third-graders were proficient or advanced in reading, the same as the statewide average, based on this year's statewide Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, replacement for the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).
However, local public high school students taking the ACT college entrance exam lag behind the state and national averages, according to the test results.
Last year, 1.62 million students took the test, said Scott Gomer, ACT spokesman.
In Colorado, all high school juniors take the ACT test. If students take it more than once, that student's latest score is the valid one, Gomer said.
"We're changing the system to line up with the state standards," said Mike Gass, assistant superintendent with the Eagle County School District. "We have not backed off our goal of providing an excellent education for every student. ... In our building, we have five groups of teachers working on curriculum work for next year."
The school district overhauled its curriculum to reflect changes in the Colorado Department of Education's new state standards, Gass said.
They're going after career and post-secondary readiness, Gass said. In other words, graduates should be ready to take their place in college, the work force or a vocational program. That expands the focus from what students know - facts and figures - to how and why they know it.
"It emphasizes being able to problem solve, communicate not only face to face but also electronically, in real time," Gass said. "There's more emphasis on how kids process information, as well as the information itself. You can get a problem right, but you'd better be able to explain why you got it right. That's a challenge for limited English speakers."
Gass said the school district is taking a wider view and creating partnerships that it hopes will strengthen the students' support systems and help make learning easier.
"We're going after the whole child," Gass said. "A lot of the work we're doing in student services centers around health care and mental health. The school district has combined resources with agencies like the county's Health and Human Services Department to help families and kids."
They've partnered with the private sector to help provide nutrition and health care, including a clinic for students at Avon Elementary School.
"Through a tough economy, I'm extremely proud of the partnerships we've formed," Gass said.
The Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests students' skills in reading, writing and math in grades three through 10 and in science in grades five, eight and 10. It measures how well students are mastering specific skills defined for each grade by the state of Colorado.
It reflects a drop in performance between the third and 10th grades across the state.
The Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network looked at 15 years of CSAP data. It found that 6 percent of fourth-graders scored advanced in 1997 and 5 percent in 2011.
However, it found that more fourth-graders are passing the test. The number of proficient or advanced was up 10 percent over that 15-year period, up from 55 percent to 65 percent.
It also found that:
• The number of students scoring proficient or above was up in 81 percent of Colorado's 178 school districts between 1997 and 2011.
• The number of students scoring advanced in reading fell in 64 percent of the state's school districts since the CSAPs began.
• Reading scores for the majority of school districts are stalled or have fallen slightly since 2006. Most of the reading gains occurred over the CSAP's first 10 years. In about 80 percent of the state's school districts, fourth-grade readers scoring advance in reading remained even or fell.
Deputy Education Commissioner Diana Sirko said the results might reflect a focus on reading during the first several years of CSAP testing. She also said that the state's schools have higher percentages of at-risk students and English-language learners than they did 15 years ago.
Gass has twice studied the local student population and both times found that about 60 percent of the kids take the tests all the way through. But even many of those move up and down the valley from school to school before they graduate.
"That's what drives much of the vertical curriculum," Gass said.
Several years ago, the district standardized curriculum from grade to grade and school to school to help teachers and students cover consistent subject matter and to make sure kids don't get the same material twice if they move from one school to another.
Third-graders who don't read proficiently are four times more likely to drop out or flunk out of high school, studies say.
One in six children who do not read proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than proficient readers, according the report "Double Jeopardy: How Poverty and Third-Grade Reading Skills Influence High School Graduation," commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Once children fall behind in school, they tend to keep falling further and further behind until they drop out, the study found.
The study followed 3,975 students born between 1979 and 1989, most of whom finished high school by age 19. The numbers of dropouts were highest among those who didn't read well in third grade and those who had lived in poverty. Black and Hispanic students were disproportionately represented in both categories, the study found. They were twice as likely as white children not to graduate on time.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.