Updated – A report released today by A+ Denver finds bright spots among Denver’s high schools but notes that overall too many schools in Denver and neighboring Aurora are failing to prepare kids for college.

DSST
Photo from the DSST website. DSST is held up as a model of urban high school reform in a new report by A+ Denver.

Van Schoales,  the non-profit advocacy group’s CEO, said the results are disappointing considering the millions of dollars that have been pumped into programs aimed at fixing factory model urban high schools over the past decade or so.

He said it’s time for a community-wide dialogue on how to improve the area’s high schools.

“It’s sort of like, where’s the beef?” Schoales said. “More kids are going to college. More kids are graduating. That’s all good. But achievement isn’t really improving.”

Schoales pointed out that in Colorado, only 7 percent of low-income Latino students graduate from college while the state needs that figure to be 70 percent to meet future workforce needs. Nearly 60 percent of Denver’s 83,400 students are Latino, and 73 percent of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

“We have a serious problem,” Schoales said. “We need to be rethinking how we do high school.”

The report contains a host of recommendations. They include:

  • Requiring all students to take a college preparatory curriculum.
  • Considering 6-12 configurations vs. 9-12.
  • Linking high school graduation rates to demonstrated mastery of content and habits – not seat time.
  • Extending the school day and year.
  • Tapping a pool of mentors to work with students through sports, work or outside school activities.
  • Paying for travel so students can visit colleges and get help with college and financial aid forms.
  • Providing critical academic and social-emotional support for students on college campuses.
  • Creating a culture of high expectations where there are consequences for unprofessional behavior and choices.
  • Preparing students for college and careers with university credits, industry certificates and associate degrees.
  • Engaging students through career exploration and relevant core academics.
  • Restructuring or creating smaller, autonomous mission-driven schools.
  • Requiring capstone project that includes substantial writing, project management and community connection for graduation.
  • Encouraging teachers and administrators to spend time in different types of schools learning new practices.
  • Ensuring that teachers feel supported through specialized coaching, professional development, collaboration time and career growth. 

  • Building strong alignment of assessments starting very early that are aligned to the ACT (or exit exam).

“We have figured out how to create high-performing high schools,” Schoales said. “We now know how to do that. We just don’t know how to do it in the context of a district.”

The recommendations in the report are a response to the fact that most high schools in the two districts “do not yet have the capacity to prepare most kids for college,” the report finds.

The report argues that a shift toward decentralization, mainly the creation of charter and innovation schools, is leading to pockets of success in terms of student achievement and college readiness.

While the report touches on a range of new types of schools focusing on the arts, or dual language, or even physical activity, it holds up DSST as the crown jewel of Denver’s high school reform efforts.

DSST a model of a quality urban high school

“There is currently just one school, DSST, with a socially and ethnically diverse student body that has strong outcomes and a differentiated model,” the report states. “DSST has been a remarkable success and will eventually have six high schools serving approximately one-fifth of Denver’s graduates.”

DSST CEO Bill Kurtz said his schools embrace key beliefs that support a culture of achievement.

“The district is doing a lot of things to boost high school achievement,” Kurtz said. “They’re working hard at it. For us, the clarity of our work is really based on our belief and commitment to give every student the opportunity to get to four-year college without remediation.”

At DSST, there are no differentiated tracks – it’s a one-track college prep program.

“A lot of large high schools have a pronounced college-going track and a pronounced non college-going track.”

Another core value is to hire the right teachers and give them the support they need to be successful. And, the school is data-obsessed.

“We use data to track students on a very consistent basis so students, and teachers, and parents know where students are so we can make very immediate changes in course if we need to if kids are not mastering the material,” Kurtz said.

In addition, DSST high schools top out at about 500 students in grades 9 to 12. Kurtz said the smaller size allows quality relationships to blossom.

“It’s hard to create when you get much bigger than that,” he said. “Everybody’s success is important to everybody else. The bigger it gets the more impersonal it gets.”

Kurtz said there is no magic involved with DSST.

“The important part is that those are all replicable things.”

Grad rates mask deficiencies

And, while the report credits DPS for increasing high school graduation rates by 20.1 percentage points since 2006 (and 12.4 points since 2009) and Aurora for seeing a rise in its graduation rate of four points since 2009  it points out that the devil is in the details.

For instance, more students may be taking Advanced Placement and college-level classes while in high school and enrolling in college at higher rates but it’s unclear they’re learning what they should.

“Unfortunately, while kids are staying in school longer, and are enrolling in more rigorous classes, few students are at grade level or truly prepared for college-level work,” the report states.

Yet the report states that at least three-fourths of high school graduates should be college ready since even blue-collar jobs “are increasingly requiring some postsecondary training.”

ACT scores raise concern

In Denver and Aurora, more than a third of students consistently score below 15 on the ACT. And, 43 percent of poor students in DPS and 39 percent of poor students in APS scored less than 15 on the test.

The report notes that the military requires enlistees to earn at least a 31 on the ASVAB ASQT – the ACT equivalent of about a score of 15. In other words, about a third of students in DPS and APS would not qualify for basic military service, the report finds.

The college readiness benchmark, according to ACT, is a composite score of 21. Reaching a college ACT benchmark in a given subject means that a student has a 75 percent chance of scoring a C or better in college in that subject.

The average ACT score for Denver Public Schools is 17.6. The average score for Aurora Public Schools is 16.9, representing the 32nd and 27th percentiles.

Subgroups fare differently depending on where they go to school. DSST is the only DPS high school that consistently prepares students of all sub-groups for college.

Meanwhile, East High stands out as one of the best places to be “if you pay for lunch, but not if you qualify for free lunch.”

And KIPP – while not a high performer overall, with an average ACT score of 18 – logs the fourth highest percentage of Latino students scoring 24 or better, according to the A+ report.

Across Denver, African-American, Latino and low-income students lag far behind white and non low-income students on the ACT.

Remediation rates climb

remediation rates
Click on image to enlarge

Meanwhile, more than half of students who enroll in college from Denver or Aurora high schools must take remedial classes before enrolling in for-credit courses.

And, as more students enroll in college, remediation rates are climbing.

In
 Denver, they 
rose 
from 55 to 59 percent between 2009 and 2011; and in Aurora they grew from 56 percent to 60 percent. In 2006 Aurora’s rate was 45 percent and DPS’ was 46 percent.

Remediation rates matter because they portend the time it takes for students to graduate from college, the report notes.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education tracked those students who took remedial college classes in public institutions in Colorado between 2004 and 2011, finding that 30 percent of students not needing remediation graduated within four years compared to 9 percent of students who needed remediation.

“This means that, based on DPS’ and APS’ remediation rate, for every 100 students who matriculate to college from DPS or APS, 17 will graduate in four years,” the A+ report states.

Dropping out of college can be particularly devastating to low-income students, the report argues, because loans are often taken out that can’t be paid back.

Aurora superintendent says new measurements needed

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry said he wasn’t surprised by the data collected in the report.

“I’ll be the first one to admit we have a lot of work to do in high school,” Barry said Thursday. “However, my personal view is we need to rethink how we measure success in high schools.”

He said looking at ACT scores and remediation rates may be outdated.

In Aurora, students earned 2,600 college course credits last year while in high school, meaning they bypassed remediation and the need for  a certain ACT score all together. In addition, through the ASCENT program, students can stay in high school for a fifth year to continue their college-level work. Then there’s the “pathways” programs that aim to prepare students starting as early as elementary school for careers in health sciences, business, math and engineering, or arts and communications.

And, a whole range of programs in Aurora strive to get students high school diplomas or GEDs no matter what the student’s age or status. Barry himself knocks on doors of people who dropped out of high school years earlier encouraging them to return.

“While this report is valuable, what we’ve put into place in Aurora has not shown its full effect yet,” Barry said. “If  you only use a traditional model (of measurement) – such as ACT and remediation – you miss the true measure of whether we’re winning or losing in our ability to measure success in high schools.”

The myth of Advanced Placement classes

AP pass rates
Click on image to enlarge

To incentivize AP participation over the past few years, Denver has offered School Performance Framework points to schools who enroll students in AP classes.

These incentives to increase AP participation have worked, the report found. Between 2008 and 2012, 2,095 additional AP tests were taken in Denver – an impressive 174 percent jump at a time when student population in the district grew by only 14 percent.

AP figures from Aurora were not available.

As more Denver students have taken AP tests, more have passed yet “a consistently low percentage of students continue to pass the AP tests,” the report states.

The national pass rate is 56 percent while Denver’s is about 37 percent.

“These low pass rates signal that while many students take the AP classes, few master the material,” the report found.

The news in the report came as no surprise to Antwan Wilson, DPS assistant superintendent who oversees the Office of Post-Secondary Readiness.

“A lot of what’s there mirrors investigations we’ve done internally,” Wilson said. “Whether we’re talking about focusing on reasons why kids are off track or ways to personalize learning for kids, we’re working with schools around that.”

The district spends $900,000 per year on its special academies for sixth- and ninth-graders adjusting to new school levels. And it spends $1.5 million annually on administering AP programs and tests and on concurrent enrollment programs that allow students to earn college credit while still in high school, Wilson said. It also spends $900,000 per year on credit recovery programs for students who have fallen off -track, but Wilson dismissed one claim in the report that DPS had spent most of the $10 million from  mill levy funds over the past 10 years on such programs.

“We have been encouraging and leveraging models that focus on more intentional learning environments that tend to take advantage of practices DSST and other successful schools implement,” Wilson said.

Denver and Aurora High Schools: Crisis and Opportunity