State scores mostly flat, but growth in Denver

TCAP Test LogoThe first year of the state’s Transitional Colorado Assessment Program – called TCAP – has produced results much the same as the final year of the more familiar CSAP tests.

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s students are reading at grade level, typically defined as scoring proficient or advanced, representing a slight increase over 2011. About 56 percent are proficient or above in math, essentially the same as last year.

Fewer students – 54 percent – are writing at grade level, a marginal decline. Science scores are slightly up, with 49 percent of students achieving proficiency.

“Overall, Colorado has not lost ground but gains are minimal. Learning gaps are persistent and unacceptable,” said Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner for the Colorado Department of Education, who reported the results Wednesday to the State Board of Education.

Added Keith Owens, the department’s deputy commissioner: “Stable is not progress.”

The slight uptick in reading proficiency is good news but it masks a concerning trend – the percent of students achieving at the very highest level, or advanced, was flat again this year. Over five years, the number of Colorado students reading at the advanced mark has actually declined, from 8.4 percent in 2008 to 7.5 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the percentage of students scoring proficient has climbed from 59 percent to 62 percent during that time.

That trend doesn’t hold true in math, where the greatest growth over five years has come in the advanced level. In 2008, 21 percent of Colorado students were advanced in math compared to 23 percent in 2012. The numbers of students scoring proficient in math has remained flat at 33 percent.

An analysis of the results by Education News Colorado and our partners at the I-News Network also found:

  • Minority and low-income students posted stronger gains or smaller declines than white and wealthier students in reading, writing and science. However, the gaps for low-income and Hispanic and black students remained wide compared to white and Asian students.
  • More students are falling behind in math and writing. Nearly 88 percent – or 137,869 students – who scored unsatisfactory or partially proficient in math are not advancing fast enough to reach proficiency in three years or by the tenth grade, the last year the state tests are given. Last year’s figure was 86.5 percent. In writing, 75 percent of students are not on pace to achieve proficiency, compared to 67.5 percent last year.
  • More Colorado students are on track to reach grade level in reading. Some 67 percent of those who failed to achieve state reading standards were not making enough progress to attain proficiency, meaning 80,344 students must show unexpected growth to reach grade level. That’s down from 71 percent last year.

A news release issued by Colorado Department of Education officials acknowledged the difficulty in improving the performance of already-struggling students. The state uses students’ testing history to determine the likelihood they will “catch up” to proficiency.

“Only 33 percent of non-proficient students made enough growth in reading to “catch-up.” For writing, 25 percent of students made catch-up growth, while only 12 percent did in math,” the release noted. “Clearly the state needs to accelerate the learning of our non-proficient students.

Notable findings for school districts and schools included:

  • Some of the state’s poorest districts made the strongest gains this year, including Denver and Westminster, while some of Colorado’s traditionally higher-performing districts were largely flat or declined. That includes Aspen, Fort Collins and Jefferson County.
  • Among the state’s ten largest school districts, students in Denver Public Schools showed the highest growth in reading and writing. In math, students in the Boulder Valley School District posted the strongest growth.
  • Results for Denver’s Beach Court Elementary, the high-poverty school once lauded for high test scores, plummeted in every grade and subject. DPS officials fired Principal Frank Roti this past spring after an investigation found evidence of cheating. The 2012 results plunged by as much as 59 percentage points in fourth-grade writing.

District results

The I-News analysis showed that many of the state’s lowest-performing and poorest districts made some of the strongest gains this year compared to 2011.

State TCAP documents

In reading, several districts outperformed the state average for gains. The Harrison and Colorado Springs 11 school districts in El Paso County, the Pueblo City district and the Mapleton, Denver and Westminster districts in the metro area posted gains of two to five percentage points in proficiency, exceeding the average gain statewide.

In math, Harrison, Westminster and Brighton increased the percent of students scoring proficient during a year where scores stagnated statewide.

And in writing, the Denver and Westminster districts increased the percent scoring proficient or better at a time when most districts saw scores fall.

One of the exceptions was Commerce City, one of the state’s poorest districts, which saw scores drop in all three subjects.

In her presentation to state board members, O’Brien, who oversees testing in the state, cited these districts as having statistically significant gains:

  • Reading – 30 districts had such gains but the top five are the rural districts of Granada, Haxtun, North Conejos and Salida, along with Sheridan in the metro area.
  • Writing – Aurora, Denver and Westminster in the metro area, and rural Salida.
  • Math – Seven districts had statistically significant gains but the top five are Brighton and Westminster in the metro area, Cheyenne Mountain and Harrison near Colorado Springs and rural Salida.
  • Science – 13 districts posted such gains but the top five are Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, along with rural East Grand, Keenesburg, Prairie and Trinidad. Denver and Harrison school districts also are among the top 13.

O’Brien also noted significant improvement in seven school districts rated as priority improvement and turnaround, the state’s lowest rankings – Aurora, Canon City, Denver, Mapleton, Pueblo City, Sheridan and Westminster.

Denver Public Schools

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg lauded the district’s academic growth, which led the state’s ten largest districts in reading and writing. The district was in the middle in math growth.

“I’m very, very pleased to see such strong progress and very grateful to the work of our teachers and our school leaders and everyone in the district who helped drive this growth,” he said.

“At the same time, it’s clear we have a long, long way to go.”

Since 2005, when the district adopted its strategic Denver Plan under former superintendent Michael Bennet, DPS has posted double-digit gains in students’ proficiency in reading, writing, math and science. The biggest increase is a 14-point climb in math, from a 29 percent proficiency rate to 43 percent.

Boasberg also pointed to promising, if preliminary, results in two areas targeted for reforms – Far Northeast Denver and Northwest Denver.

Virtually all schools in the Far Northeast Denver showed increased proficiency levels and growth scores. In particular, math proficiency increased after a tutoring program was implemented in grades 4, 6 and 9.

And in Northwest Denver, where a controversial turnaround targeting middle schools was approved in 2009, students have made double-digit gains in reading, writing and math since 2010.

Achievement gaps

On the issue of achievement gaps, the state Department of Education reported, “Consistent with previous results, in 2012 there were significant gaps between the percentage of white students scoring proficient or advanced and the percentage of black students scoring proficient and advanced in all content areas.”

The largest black-white student gap was 36.7 percent in science scores, and the smallest gap was 27.8 percent in writing.

Between white and Hispanic students, there was a 34.7 percent gap in science. The smallest gap between those two groups was 27.2 percent in math.

“One part of the report was very alarming, and that has to do with the achievement gap,” said state board member Elaine Gantz Berman, a Democrat who represents the area including Denver. “What at the Department of Education are we doing to work with individual school districts? … We can’t afford to lose another generation of kids.”

“I’m not sure, quite frankly, we have good answers for you,” said education Commissioner Robert Hammond, while noting that CDE is focusing on working with districts that have turnaround and priority improvement status under the state’s accountability system.

Board member Deb Scheffel, a Republican who represents the area including Parker, also pointed to “the intractability of these data over time” and wondered if that means Colorado is following the right path of education reform.

Owens, the deputy commissioner, later said, “I don’t think the big reform pieces have kicked in.” But, he said, “The rate we’ve moving at is still too slow.”

ACT results

All Colorado 11th-graders take the ACT college entrance test. The average composite score was 20 in 2012, up from 19.9 the year before. Average scores on the English and math sub-tests were up slightly, while reading and science reasoning average scores decreased very slightly. The highest possible ACT score is 36.

The state has not yet released individual school or district results for the ACT. Those are expected to be available Aug. 17.

About the TCAP

Tests are administered in February through April, so the 2012 results are a snapshot of how students performed last school year. Reading, writing and math tests are given in grades 3-10; science tests are administered in grades 5, 8 and 10.

In partnership

  • EdNews partnered with the I-News Network, a Denver-based non-profit news group, on an analysis of 2012 state test results.

Some 1,654,765 TCAP assessments were taken by about 490,500 students. The first CSAP tests were given in 1997, and the state assessment system now includes 31 separate tests.

The TCAP tests were launched to accommodate changes in the state’s academic standards, which set guidelines for what students are taught and, by extension, what they should be able to demonstrate on tests. The tests were designed so that results can be compared to previous CSAP scores.

The TCAP system originally was intended to be used only in 2012 and 2013, with new “permanent” tests fully aligned to the new academic standards rolling out in 2014.

But the state legislature this year declined to fully fund the Department of Education’s request for the money to develop new Colorado-only tests, making it likely that the TCAPs also will have to be used in 2014. Some legislators and the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper want Colorado to use multi-state tests being developed by two national groups. Those tests will be available by 2015 at the earliest.

O’Brien said the testing system after 2015 is “going to be a very different system.” The department hopes tests will be online, and she said full implementation of the new state standards means the tests will place greater emphasis on problem solving and having students apply their knowledge.

“In the next five years, we’ll be revealing our strengths and weaknesses in new ways,” she said. “It will be a challenge.”

Colorado’s largest school districts ranked by 2012 TCAP reading performance

Colorado’s largest schools districts ranked by 2012 TCAP growth performance, all subjects

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.