First Person

Denver, Jeffco a study in grad rate contrasts

By Charlie Brennan, Education News Colorado

Colorado’s two largest school districts are near opposite ends of the spectrum in a report comparing “expected” high school graduation rates and actual rates in the nation’s 50 largest school districts.

Photo montageJefferson County had the fifth-highest graduation rate of the 50 districts (77.7 percent) in 2008, 8.5 points higher than the 69.2 percent expected rate. The state’s largest district with nearly 86,000 students, Jeffco stretches from poorer neighborhoods along Denver’s western border to well-to-do foothills enclaves.

Denver Public Schools ranked 48th with a graduation rate of 43.5 percent, 9.3 points below its expected rate of 52.8 percent. The district, whose boundaries are the same as the city’s, has enrollment of more than 78,000 students, Colorado’s second largest.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson was cautious about her district’s results. “As educators, you should always be careful the way you apply formulas. You do it one way, you look good, and you can have another way … that you don’t look as good.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said, “I think it’s certainly fair to say our graduation rate should be and needs to be significantly higher.” He cited DPS reforms undertaken since 2008 and fresher statistics to argue that the district is improving.

“Diplomas Count,” the annual high school graduation study from Education Week includes a ranking of the nation’s 50 largest school districts, reporting their 2008 graduation rates and their expected rates, the latter determined by a formula based on 10 factors. That analysis was done by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

The study, released last week, raises interesting discussion points about demographics, the pace of reform in urban districts and the value of such projections. (Story on the full study and links.)

Do urban and suburban make the difference?

Projecting graduation rates

The EPE study uses 10 factors in projecting expected district graduation rates.

  • Enrollment
  • Average high school size
  • Student-teacher ration
  • Location (urban or other)
  • Percentage minority enrollment
  • Racial segregation
  • Poverty level
  • Economic segregation
  • Per-pupil expenditures
  • Instructional spending

Christopher Swanson of EPE said while the factors “are all kind of on equal footing … We do know some of these factors have a more direct effect on graduation than others, and they are the socio-economic level, socio-economic segregation, poverty level, racial composition and racial segregation. … Size matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as poverty and racial isolation.”

Full list of the 50 districts

Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education and author of the graduation rates report, noted that Denver and other districts that fell short of expectations “are all, almost exclusively, inner-city urban districts; they are all kind of under-performing to various degrees.”

He mentioned, Detroit, which ranked 50th among big districts in its graduation rate and fell 13.7 percent short of expectations. Philadelphia, ranked 47th, showed a 7.5 percent shortfall. One notch higher, at 46th, was Los Angeles, with a 6.0 percent shortfall.

“When you get up higher in these rankings, you tend to see these big-county, wider districts; they may be diverse, and they tend to be more affluent than the inner city districts,” said Swanson.

But urban/suburban differences doesn’t seem to tell the whole story.

Chicago exceeded its expected graduation rate by 23.1 percent – the highest positive differential of any district on the EPE list. New York also did well, surpassing expectations by 7.7 percent.

Russell Rumberger, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor of education who studies graduation rates, said there are reasons that help explain New York and Chicago’s performance.

“New York has had Gates (Foundation) money to revive the whole system and add schools, and in Chicago there are similar things happening,” Rumberger said. “That shows that some of these interventions are actually paying off in raising grad rates.”

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Colorado Denver, has also looked at the study. He agreed that New York and Chicago have seen the impact of reform efforts underway for well more than a decade.

“It’s disturbing to see Denver” falling short, he said. “If you compare Denver to other like-sized cities, such as Milwaukee, Baltimore, Houston, Albuquerque – Denver’s negative is bigger than all but Detroit, and we know Detroit is pretty much a disaster in a lot of ways. It’s not good news for Denver.”

Analyzing the study

Peter Fritz, principal consultant in the office of Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement for the Colorado Department of Education, also reviewed the report.

While he didn’t dispute the findings, he said, “It can be an art form to figure out which factors you should rely on and how much weight each factor should be given. But it can be a pretty powerful tool to tell whether districts are meeting expectations or are doing the most with what they have.”

Fritz did find the study’s failure to include mobility as a factor as significant. Mobility, as defined by the CDE, includes a student changing grades, moving from one school to another or from one district to another during a school year.

In 2007-2008, Fritz said, CDE calculated the Colorado average for mobility to be 25.5 percent. In that same year, Jefferson County showed a mobility rate of 19.3 percent, while Denver’s was 30.5 percent. Fritz suggested Denver would have fared better had its high mobility been factored in to the projected graduation rate.

But Rumberger defended the omission of mobility.

“I’ve done some research, and at least in some instances, mobility is, in fact, created by the districts themselves,” Rumberger said, through forced relocations of students to resolve discipline issues, or for other reasons.

“It’s difficult to tell, sometimes, the degree to which a mobility is district-caused and the degree to which it is not,” Rumberger added. “And for a model like this, you want to control only for those things the district has no control over.”

Paul Teske
Paul Teske

Teske had his own questions concerning the study’s methodology, suggesting, for instance, that urban and suburban districts have such contrasting characteristics that they should perhaps be analyzed separately.

He also said individual factors in such a study need to be viewed carefully. The EPE study used poverty as a factor, as indicated by the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

There is poverty, and then there is poverty, Teske said. “There really is a lot of difference between kids from a household that’s under $10,000 income, really poor, with one parent, no parent, or non-working parents, versus a kid who’s maybe got a single parent who is making $30,000 as a bus driver, or a fast-food worker, with a reasonably stable household, or apartment they live in year-round.”

Superintendents evaluate their districts

Boasberg said, “I do think it’s fair to say our graduation rate should be higher, and that’s exactly the purpose of the reforms under the Denver Plan and the changes in schools like West and Montbello.”

In addition to the dramatic turnaround plan approved for Montbello High School area last November, the district is now considering a proposal to phase out underperforming West High School and introduce two new grade 6-12 academies at its central Denver location.

Tom Boasberg
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg

“The need to increase rigor and increase the graduation rate is the driving factor behind the reforms,” Boasberg said. “We clearly recognize the need for very significant improvement in our high schools, and so that’s the driving reason for the reforms.”

Boasberg also pointed to statistics more current than those on which the EPE report is based.

“We would note the quite significant growth in the number of our graduates – more than 15 percent in the two years since the time the study examined,” said Boasberg. “In 2010, we had a 12-percent increase in the number of graduates, and we expect a further increase this year.”

He also noted that last year DPS registered a 5.4 percent jump in its on-time graduation rate over the previous year – 51.8 percent versus 46.4 percent in 2009.

Boasberg also said that the report does not include the more recent graduation rates of turnaround schools such as “Bruce Randolph, MLK, and this year, Manual; all three schools, following reforms, have graduations rates according to CDE of over 85 percent. It’s an incredible example of how the reforms are driving significantly higher graduation.”

Stevenson, despite how well her district fared in the study, said comparisons of graduation rates, particularly across the nation, are tricky.

“I think it’s nice, but I’m not ready to say happy times are here and all our problems are solved,” she said. “I have mixed feelings.”

Cindy Stevenson
Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson

Still, Stevenson said there are reasons for Jefferson County’s performance.

One, she said, is the district’s use of predictive analytics. There are key performance points in a student’s life at which negative results are warnings that a student is in danger of not graduating later.

Three that Stevenson highlighted are inability to read near grade level in third grade, unsatisfactory performance on math CSAPs in fifth and sixth grades, and two failing grades in ninth grade.

“Those are variables that you can use to predict – and then change those variables before they get” to higher grades.

“Juniors and seniors isn’t where you start. I believe you start in kindergarten,” Stevenson said.

What’s the value of projections?

Swanson of EPE said, “We haven’t engaged in any systematic analysis or investigation to explain why some districts over-or-under-perform relative to expectations. One of our hopes is that folks who are closer to the ground will take the expectations index – and other information – as a starting point for understanding and explaining what’s happening.”

“None of these measures is perfect, I guess,” said Teske. “I don’t want to suggest it isn’t a credible exercise. Even with the urban-suburban mix, the fact that Denver is more negative on the expected (graduation rate) than Baltimore is kind of surprising and worrisome.”

Fritz of CDE said, “I think it’s a good way to open a dialogue.”

And Rumberger noted, “It’s not perfect, but no statistical modeling is perfect.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.