Colorado’s students rank 12th in the nation for academic achievement. At first glance that seems pretty good. But a new study by the Manhattan Institute finds that Colorado’s scores are deceptively low because its students face more severe life challenges than those in other states.
Remove the effects of student characteristics, and Colorado schools actually rank second in the nation.
The best comparison we have for states’ academic outcomes is eighth-grade scores on the Nation’s Report Card, a test administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Scores for eighth grade are preferable because they’re the oldest grade for which state-by-state comparisons are available.
Colorado schools look good by this yardstick. In reading, 78 percent of Colorado students reach the “basic” level of achievement, the lowest level recognized by the test. In math, 74 percent of students reach the “basic” level. These scores rank Colorado 12th in the nation.
However, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Some students come to school more ready to learn than others because of factors beyond the schools’ control. While some students are well-off, others are poor; while some come from safe neighborhoods, others must struggle with the impact of crime and drugs; while some are brought up speaking English, others arrive at school facing a language barrier.
Colorado’s students are somewhat worse off than the national average in areas affecting students’ ability to learn. For example, they’re more likely to be victimized by crime or to use drugs, their health levels are lower, and they’re less likely to speak English or attend preschool.
We should take this reality into account when we evaluate Colorado’s schools in comparison with those in the rest of the nation.
A new study by the Manhattan Institute allows us to do just that. We systematically measured the levels of 16 social factors that researchers agree affect student outcomes. We combined all these data into a single measurement we call the Teachability Index.
By examining each state’s academic performance and its score on the Teachability Index, we were able to measure which states’ schools were truly performing well (or badly) and which just looked good (or bad) because of student characteristics. We compared the actual academic performance of students in each state to the level of performance we would statistically expect those students to achieve given the extent of their disadvantages. Some states did significantly better than we would expect based on their students’ characteristics, while others did significantly worse.
Colorado’s schools do a lot better than their student demographics would predict. Levels of the student disadvantages we measured were 6.7 percent worse in Colorado than the national average. Taking these disadvantages into account, we find that Colorado’s student achievement is 111 percent of what we would expect it to be. This ranks Colorado second among the states in academic outcomes adjusted for student characteristics.
Not every state with similarly disadvantaged student populations did as well as Colorado. Alabama’s students have disadvantages 7.5 percent worse than the national average but performed at only 87 percent of expectations, ranking them 48th in the nation in student achievement adjusted for student characteristics. And some states with even more seriously disadvantaged students did about as well. Texas’ students have disadvantages 19.8 percent worse than average but perform at 110 percent of expectations, ranking them fourth in the nation.
What accounts for Colorado schools’ excellent performance? Its charter schools and strict high-stakes testing both help. We found that states with more school choice and stronger accountability testing had significantly better academic outcomes after student characteristics were taken into account. This adds to a solid body of academic research finding that these reforms improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students by giving schools a powerful incentive to serve them better.
That means if Colorado revives its proposed voucher program, its schools’ performance should improve even further. Colorado’s schools should be given credit for rising above their students’ disadvantages, but they shouldn’t be excused from working towards greater progress.
Given what we spend on education, we have a right to expect a lot from our schools.