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Digging for good news

EAGLE COUNTY ” Another year, another middling performance on state-mandated tests.

The raw numbers show Eagle County’s students taking the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, also known as the CSAPs, are close to the state averages. But both local and state officials say there’s good news in what seem to be mostly blah results.

State education officials say students are making progress. There are more “proficient” scores and fewer “unsatisfactory” marks around the state. The glaring difference in test results between white and minority students is closing, if slightly, and scores on math tests are up.

With the gains, though, both Colorado Education Commissioner Bill Moloney and Eagle County Schools Superintendent John Brendza said the same thing about the results: “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Across Colorado progress has been “painfully slow,” Moloney said.

“We would like to see the great breakthrough,” he added. ” We do know what works, but in not enough places. There are districts where people get it and are doing it. But there are a large number of places where that’s not the case.”

Attendance problems

In Eagle County, kids seem to be performing fairly well on their state tests ” if they stick around. In crunching this year’s numbers, district officials have broken out what they say is a telling statistic: time in the district.

“When we have a kid longer than a year, those results are showing our efforts are paying off,” Brendza said.

The numbers from this year seem to support Brendza’s claim.

Using fifth grade reading as an example, 72 percent of kids in the district a year or more hit the “proficient or advanced” level on their state tests. Only 55 percent of students in the district for a short time hit those marks.

The difference is more pronounced in high school math. Ninth and 10th graders who have been in the district a year or more are scoring proficient or advanced at 35 percent and 31 percent respectively, about the state average. Students in the district less than a year hit their marks at 12 and 13 percent.

“Knowing that almost one in two students move sometime in the year, that’s a problem,” Brendza said.

Families move in and out of the district, and in and out of schools at a rapid clip. Former Gypsum Elementary School Principal Mike Gass, now the district’s director of secondary education, said one student he had enrolled and left three times one school year a few years ago.

What happens, Gass said, is families will often move from, say Edwards to Gypsum during a school year. Many immigrant families also come and go as local jobs do.

“We have what we call ‘resort migrant workers,'” Gass said. And those workers fall into roughly three types.

The first come in for ski season, roughly Nov. 1 through spring break.

Other families follow construction season, roughly spring break through Thanksgiving. Then there are the families that return to Mexico for the holidays, and take off for most of December and January.

“They come back just before the CSAPs,” Gass said of the last group.

The students who come and go make it hard for many of the district’s schools to boost their test scores, said Carolyn Neff, the district’s elementary education director.

The effect is especially pronounced at Avon Elementary School, which was more than 80 percent Hispanic last school year. There, most students take the state tests in English instead of their native Spanish.

“They do that knowing they’ll take a hit on the tests one year,” Neff said. “If they stay, they’ll do better next year.”

The ones who don’t, though, aren’t helping the school, or getting much help.

The never-ending gap

While district officials know they have trouble teaching kids who come and go, they’re doing well with those in various programs for gifted and talented students. The scores for those kids in the last round of state tests were uniformly high.

The high achievers will pull up the district’s averages, of course. “But if we’re doing our job right, we’ll always have an achievement gap,” Gass said.

If the district keeps bringing up scores of its stable and bright students, there’s always going to be a gap between their test scores and those of the students whose families move in and out of the district. That gap’s probably going to get wider before it gets narrower.

And the district has to find a way to narrow that gap while kids are still young, Gass said.

A student in the district is expected to make “a year’s progress in a year’s time,” meaning a second grader finishes school ready to go into third grade. A lot of students, especially those learning English, need to make more than a year’s progress in one school year. That’s a goal a lot of elementary students reach.

“But if that gap isn’t closed by eighth grade, there aren’t enough hours in a day to make it up,” Gass said.

To help close that gap, the district will have most of its youngest students in all-day kindergarten this year. “There’s no substitute for time,” Gass said. “We need time, a culture of learning and motivation.”

Tick, tick, tick

No matter the problems getting student test scores up, it’s going to have to happen, and fairly soon. The clock is ticking on federal standards that will require all students to score achieve least a “proficient” level in order for districts to keep getting federal money.

The deadline year is 2014, Moloney said. And, he added, the goal of educating all kids is worth pursuing.

“One of the worst things we’ve been up against is that some people write off some kids,” he said. “It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. There’s no alternative to saying we’re going to try to help every kid.”

That means expecting more of kids.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we do a good job of maintaining a high bar for kids?’,” Gass said. In the long run, he added, “Our biggest asset is the quality of our teachers.

“Those teachers are working their tails off,” he said. “Without that drive and commitment from teachers, we can’t do it.”

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado


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