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Local students’ math skills continue to drop

District considers how to battle falling CSAP scores

If Gunnison County’s high school scores on the math portion of the CSAP were rain, we’d be running for cover. 


Results for the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) released last Tuesday show that 34 percent of the county’s tenth-graders are proficient in math for their grade level this year. This is still higher than the state average of 30 percent but down from 40 percent proficiency in 2006 and 38 percent last year.
“I don’t know what to say,” says Dr. Chris Purkiss, director of curriculum and assessment for Gunnison RE1J School District. “We’re seeing the same pattern as the state is having and that is a kind of consistent drop from third and fourth grade to tenth.”
While 77 percent of the 113 Gunnison County third-grade students who took the test were deemed proficient in mathematics, the number of students proficient in math fell gradually each year as they moved toward their final year of CSAP testing as sophomores.
The story was the same or worse in districts throughout the state. Among third-graders statewide, 43 percent tested proficient, while only 30 percent of tenth graders met that level.
That means that statewide, 70 percent of tenth-grade students cannot “solve practical real-world problems and demonstrate understanding of the skills, concepts and procedures … for mathematics at that grade level,” according to the Colorado Department of Education’s website.
Purkiss says students’ gaining knowledge of basic math fundamentals is key to improving scores. “Part of [the problem] is that if you don’t learn a math fact in fourth grade, then when you get to fifth grade you’re doubly behind,” says Purkiss.
The test scores of students at the Crested Butte Community School showed that 74 percent of third graders are proficient in math but that number drops by 44 percent among the school’s sophomores.
“It has been, quite frankly, unacceptable,” says CBCS principal Stephanie Niemi. “This year we’ve hired a mathematics interventionist who is going to work with elementary students who need additional support as well as students in middle school and possibly high school.”
According to the Colorado Department of Education, the CSAP illustrates how students in Colorado are progressing toward meeting academic standards, and how schools are ensuring students are academically successful. The testing is conducted every year for students in grades three through 10.
For the first few years students are required to take the standardized test, the results might accurately represent what students know.
But for Purkiss, part of the cause of low scores is apathy among students in the higher grades, not a lack of understanding.
“Many kids don’t see any reason to take [the CSAP] and there is a general dislike for standardized testing,” says Purkiss. “They get no bang for their buck with the CSAP and by the time they get to ninth and tenth grade, they’re fed up with it.”
Students are also expected to take the ACT in eleventh grade, which is a similar aptitude test used in the college application process. Local students score much better on the college-entrance exam.
“ACT scores for 11th graders do not bear any correlation to previous CSAP scores,” says Purkiss. “We, as a district, do better than the state average by a percentage point or two and there is not a lot of difference in the questions.”
Up-to-date teaching material is another issue, says Purkiss. As students slip in their CSAP scores between third and tenth grades, the district has textbooks that are in some cases as old as the students using them, when their expected life span is just five or six years.
When the district fell into financial hard times leading up to an accreditation watch in January 2004, curriculum materials such as textbooks were cut from the budget. According to the district’s 2009 budget, the schools still do not have funds to replace their aging textbooks.
“We haven’t had a math textbook adoption in a considerable amount of time. That’s not to say math concepts change, but how you present those concepts in class has changed,” says Purkiss.
After the district struggled with reading last year, the focus became buying material that would improve reading proficiency—and now that focus has moved to math.
“[The school board is] looking to do the same process for math program district-wide and in the next budget cycle we’ll be looking at the entire math curriculum and how it’s going to be taught,” says board president MJ Vosburg, adding that the board has never denied a request for new math textbooks.
One way the district is hoping to improve the low proficiency scores is by continually educating teachers how to better educate students. After a similar situation when the CSAP results were released last year, the District Math Leadership Team was formed to make recommendations to the board of education on ways to improve test scores. One of the recommendations made was continuing education for teachers.
Niemi says there are funds available from both the district and each school site meant specifically for teachers to continue their training. As a result, math teachers from CBCS travel every year to workshops that can hone their skills.
 “I don’t think there is a problem with the curriculum, but the way we teach math has changed considerably throughout the years,” says Purkiss. “I think having a well-trained, stable staff is great. But we, as a district, need to provide professional development for those teachers.”

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