Denver to roll out new system for tracking student performance

Denver Public Schools is launching a new system that would begin monitoring students’ preparation for college and career as early as kindergarten.

The new plan, outlined in an internal document acquired by EdNews Colorado, establishes so-called “gateways” for students, benchmarks at certain grade levels that can help predict whether a student will be college-ready.

The gateways will not be used to hold schools or teachers accountable for their performance, said Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief academic officer and head of the team leading the design. Instead, the question is “what are some key places in a student’s career where we need to make sure we support?”

Parents and teachers would be able to track a student’s progress, either through the parent portal or some other method. The district plans to also build tools for parents to help support their student’s progress on the benchmarks.

The gateways program is still in its first stages. A district spokesperson said that the gateways won’t go into effect until after the board revises the Denver Plan, the district’s blueprint for raising student achievement. The timeline for that will be set by the new school board after the election.

Tracking students for success

The gateways system is based on one used in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, called Seven Keys to College Readiness.

“Montgomery County has had a strong track record of closing the achievement gap,” said Cordova. “They have used these seven keys to success for years.”

The district decided on seven gateways from kindergarten to high school graduation, based largely on students’ performances on standardized tests (see below for a description of the seven gateways). These include Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) math and reading tests, the American College Testing (ACT) test for high school seniors, and the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) for kindergarteners.

Cordova also said it will give parents, teachers and principals a concrete understanding of how a student is progressing.

In addition to making it to the next gateway, the goals for students are tied to metrics of future success. According to the district, college and career readiness starts far earlier than high school.

For example, students who meet the third grade benchmark are two and a half times more likely to enroll in college without remediation. Passing the eighth grade benchmark leads to an eight-fold gain. A description of each grade’s metric and its effect on a student’s future is available below .

Cordova’s team is also contemplating including social and emotional benchmarks as well.

“Academic preparation is one piece of it,” said Cordova. “But they also need to learn the social and emotional skills for success, like grit, resilience.”

She said they want to stay away from grading students on their character, as some schools do. Instead, they might use something like extracurricular participation.

Current state of affairs

If one of the goals of the program is better college readiness for Denver students, the district’s own data shows it has a long way to go. Kindergarten is the only area where more than 50 percent of students pass the gateway.

Denver Public Schools is growing faster than any urban district in the U.S., largely by enticing back students who were choosing to attend school elsewhere. The school district’s administration has touted growth measures exceeding the state’s and growth performance unrivaled by any of the large Colorado school districts.

But all that growth may not be moving fast enough to make up the district’s gaps in achievement. The last state ranking for the district showed no area where the district met expectations of achievement.

By introducing gateway measurements, the district will be telling a more mixed message. In kindergarten, students are doing relatively well, with 67 percent meeting or exceeding the benchmark. Students in third grade show considerable progress on the benchmark, with 50 percent meeting the benchmark compared with 39 percent five years ago.

After third grade, that progress stalls. By the time Denver students reach the final benchmark, only 13 percent will pass, a state little different than five years ago.

At the moment, few of the district’s middle and high school students meet the academic goals laid out by the gateways program.

Denver’s middle schools, which have been at the center of the controversy over district reforms, tout high growth on state measures. The release of these benchmarks shows, that despite those gains, performance remains low. Only 33 percent of middle school students score proficient or better in math and reading on the TCAP, the benchmark for eighth grade.

Despite increases in graduation, the post-secondary performance of Denver students has not dramatically improved. College enrollment has only increased by 3 percent, despite the district’s growth in student numbers. Enrollment is currently at 47 percent or 1,705 students. That’s down from a peak of 1,719 students in 2010, when the district’s college enrollment was 50 percent.

College remediation rates have also increased in the past five years, from 57.1 percent to 59.7 percent.

Wide achievement gap

The achievement gap remains a gaping canyon on the district’s gateways, with an average 30 point difference between students who live in poverty and those who don’t. The gap is narrower for English language learners, with an average 14.5 point difference.

Fifth grade has the widest gap for impoverished students. Only 34 percent of students living in poverty passed the benchmark, compared with 73 of students above the poverty level. The gap lingers in eighth grade, with a third as many impoverished students passing the benchmark compared with their more affluent peers. The gap narrows in high school, to 21 percent.

English language learners follow a similar pattern, with narrowest performance differences in kindergarten and at graduation. English language natives outperform their English learner peers by the widest margin in third grade, with a margin of 21 points. Eleventh grade comes a close second, with 19 points.

Any improvement?

It’s not all bad news for the district. Targeted efforts in kindergarten through third grades appear to have had some success. The number of kindergarteners meeting the benchmark has increased by 28 percent. In third grade, the number increased by 11 percent.

Those gains, however, dissipate in the older grades. The district’s growing middle school population has not outperformed its predecessors. Achievement in eighth grade has stagnated at 33 percent for the past five years. The district’s middle school enrollment grew 16.5 percent over that same time, a higher rate than the district at large.

As for graduation, the district has continued to increase the number of students graduating from high school. The district’s four year graduation rate and five year completion rate has increased from 38.7 to 58.8 percent.

Current students may not see any changes for a while. The project won’t launch for at least another year, Cordova said. But when it does, she hopes, it will give parents, teachers and administrators a more accurate picture of what a student’s progress looks like.

The Gateways

Goal: Reach Text Level 4* on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)
Why? Only 51 percent of students who missed this gateway met the next one

3rd grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading and attend classes regularly
Why? Two and a half times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

5th grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading and attend classes regularly
Why? Four and a half times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

8th grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading
Why? Gain of 7 ACT points & eight times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

10th grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading
Why? Gain of 9 ACT points

11th grade
Goal: Score 22 in math & 21 in reading on the ACT
Why? Seven times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

High School
Goal: Enroll and achieve success in AP, IB or Concurrent Enrollment courses
Why? Students who passed an AP test (3 or higher) were three times more likely to immediately enroll in college without remediation

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”