In Denver, big swings in some schools’ scores, even as district follows state trends

Beneath modest district-level shifts in science and social studies test scores in Denver this year lie persistent differences between schools — and big changes at individual schools.

In one notable example, three schools run by DSST, a lauded charter network in Denver that recently got the green light to expand significantly over the next decade, saw science scores drop, in one case from 72 percent proficiency last year to just 50 percent this year. The schools posted increases in social studies scores.

This is the second year the state has administered new science and social studies assessments, known as Colorado Measures of Academic Success or CMAS.

Districtwide, science scores fell slightly in middle schools but rose in elementary school, while social studies scores inched upwards at both levels. Those overall trajectories were in line with state trends, though Denver’s scores are lower than state averages.

In Denver, 14.5 percent of 4th graders scored strong or distinguished in social studies. That’s up from 11 percent last year. 15.8 percent of 7th graders scored strong or distinguished in social studies, up from 11.6 percent last year.

And 22 percent of 5th graders scored strong or distinguished on the science exam, up from 19.6 percent last year. Twenty percent of 8th graders met state expectations in science, down from 22 percent last year.

But at five elementary schools and five middle schools, no students scored strong or distinguished on the science exams. And at 10 elementary schools and eight middle schools, no students scored strong or distinguished on social studies exams. Those schools tended to be in higher-poverty areas.

On the other hand, more than half of students scored strong or distinguished on social studies tests at seven schools, and more than half of students scored strong or distinguished on science tests at 21 schools.

[Use Chalkbeat’s database to find individual schools’ and districts’ results.]

In DPS and throughout the state, students are significantly less likely to meet the state’s expectations in science and social studies than in English and math. More than 50 percent of Denver students scored proficient or advanced in reading and more than 40 percent scored proficient or advanced in math.

“We continue to see that students overall are wrestling with expectations in these disciplines,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer. “That’s both a struggle and an opportunity.”

“Principals will be digging into the data,” she said.

The science and social studies CMAS scores are not currently used as a measure on the district’s School Performance Framework, the scorecard the district uses to monitor and make decisions about schools.

Whitehead-Bust said she is hopeful that new district initiatives, like a literacy-focused training for teachers, will help improve science and social studies performance.

She said that schools must balance competing priorities when determining how much time to devote to instruction in the subjects. But, she said, the Common Core standards and EngageNY, a new curricular resource that will be used in a number of schools, emphasize tying literacy lessons to science and social studies content.

Using the scores

High rates of free or reduced-price lunch at a school — a measure used as a proxy for low-income status — were often tied to lower overall scores. The elementary schools with the top five scores in science, for instance, all have fewer than 10 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, while the ten schools with the lowest scores all had 87 percent or more.

The trend wasn’t universally true, however. DSST: Stapleton and GALS, both of which have more than 50 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, had some of the top scores in middle school science. KIPP Sunshine Peak, which has 95 percent of kids in poverty, had scores well above the district average.

Whitehead-Bust said that teachers would use information about gaps in scores to help meet individual students’ needs. Noting the state’s gaps between English language learners and their peers, she said, “We’re going to have to continue to focus on how do we better equip ourselves and our schools with culturally and linguistically appropriate strategies.”

Experts cautioned against drawing too much meaning from this year’s scores.

Derek Briggs, a professor at CU Boulder who focuses on assessment and evaluation, emphasized that there is still just two years of data and that the numbers represent different cohorts of students rather than a single cohort’s growth from year to year.

“When you see a big jump or drop that’s different in other schools, that’s a smoke signal. And sometimes there’s fire, and sometimes there’s just noise,” Briggs said.

In some Denver schools, big shifts came as schools underwent significant changes. Pioneer Charter School, where 6 percent of students were strong or advanced this year compared to 24 percent last year, is undergoing a change in management due to low performance.

DSST executive director Bill Kurtz said it was not clear what drove the drops at three DSST middle schools. DSST: Stapleton dropped from 72 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2015; DSST: Cole dropped from 49 percent to 32 percent; and DSST: Green Valley Ranch dropped from 46 to 29 percent. Those scores are still well above the district average for 2015.

“We take seriously data that we get on our students and their achievement,” Kurtz said. “We’re excited to continue the good work in social studies and to dig in and understand the science scores and continue to grow them.”

Whitehead-Bust said that the district will take into account test scores before green-lighting the opening of any new schools. “We remain really confident in DSST’s ability to analyze and adjust programs in response to data, but we’ve put progress monitoring systems in place so we can be sure that schools are continuing to post the same outcomes for students.”

  • The five elementary schools with the highest scores in social studies: Polaris at Ebert; Steck Elementary; Cory Elementary; Carson Elementary; Park Hill Elementary
  • The five middle schools with the highest scores in social studies: DSST: Byers; Slavens K-8; McAuliffe International; DSST: Stapleton; and Denver School of the Arts.
  • The five elementary schools with the highest scores in science:
    Polaris at Ebert Elementary; Steck Elementary; Carson Elementary; Cory Elementary; Bromwell Elementary.
  • The five middle schools with the highest scores in science: Slavens K-8; Denver School of the Arts; McAuliffe International School; DSST: Stapleton; and the Girls Athletic Leadership School.