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

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.