Test talk

In Denver, steady but slow gains in final year of state tests

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Columbine Elementary School student runs past a protest sign made my parents. Denver Public Schools told Columbine principal Beth Yates she wouldn't be returning as the school's leader next year. Parents and teachers want to know why. A district official was supposed to meet with teachers Thursday, but canceled and asked to reschedule.

In the final year of the current state testing regimen, Denver Public Schools made steady but incremental gains in key areas but over half of Denver students are still not reaching grade level targets.

“To be at grade level is a strong and sometimes painfully strong, predictor of whether you’ll graduate high school,” said Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg. He said the lack of progress for the state as a whole, especially for low-income students, was “a crisis.” Read our story on the state-level results here.

Denver students’ test scores rose just over two percentage points in math and just over three percentage points in writing. Scores in writing remained largely stagnant and reading scores in the earliest tested grades, which was a focus for the district as a law focused on early literacy goes into effect, dropped slightly.

“[Early literacy] is such a critical indicator,” said Boasberg. He pointed to expanding preschool — an idea which will go before voters this fall— as a necessary step to improve the district’s early reading scores.

DPS TCAP 2014_Early Reading Scores

Boasberg also acknowledged voices that say the pace of improvement in the district is too slow.

“I’m one of those voices,” Boasberg said. But, he said, “there’s no secret sauce.”

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Chalkbeat spoke with Boasberg and dug through Denver’s scores to pull a few highlights from this year’s data dump. Read on for a few takeaways and return in the next days, as we dig into the district’s scores — and look at what, if anything, we can learn from them.

Ex-principals and their test scores

Last school year was marked by a series of high profile leadership changes at several of the district’s lowest performing schools, including a mid-year change at Manual High School. When parents and community members objected to leadership changes, district officials often cited insufficient progress or low scores as a factor in the principal’s removal. But this year’s results suggest that it may not be that simple.

At Manual, students made single-digit gains in all areas, although the school failed to reach its 2012 levels in reading.  This year, 29 percent of students were proficient in reading, 16 percent of students were proficient in writing and just six percent of students were proficient in math.

Columbine Elementary, whose principal Beth Yates was replaced at the end of the year, saw an increase in students working at grade level across content areas. Columbine, in particular, saw double-digit gains in reading and writing under Yates. Her successor, Jason Krause, came from Smith Renaissance School, another Northeast Denver elementary school that has seen steady gains.

Boasberg would not comment on individual personnel decisions.

Columbine:Smith results

One bright(ish) spot: the city’s middle schools

Historically an area of weakness, Denver’s middle schools have seen steady if slow gains in reading and writing over the past three years. And nearly a third of the city’s middle schools scored high enough on the state’s measure of student progress to be called “high growth.”

“Our middle schools are some of the best middle schools in the state,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

What percent of Denver middle schoolers are working at grade-level? | Create Infographics

[Mouse over the figure to see more details]

Still, much of those gains came from the city’s charter schools; the district-run schools grew slightly in writing but have declined in both reading and math since 2012. At Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver, where district officials announced a planned overhaul for the 2015-16 school year, scores declined or stagnated in all subjects. Charter schools have grown consistently in reading and writing but saw their scores decline in math this year. The average proficiency level in charters remains nearly 10 points higher than district-run middle schools.

For example, KIPP Montbello, which serves a predominantly low-income student population, has seen an 18 percentage point gain in reading proficiency since 2012. One of KIPP’s other campuses, Sunshine Peak Academy in southwest Denver, saw a nine point jump in reading proficiency in the same time period. Some district-run schools saw similar gains, such as a 10 point jump in the number of students writing proficiently at Stapleton’s McAuliffe International School.

And not all was well with the district’s charter schools. The STRIVE network, which is one of the largest and historically highest performing charter networks in the city, saw declines in most subjects at nearly all its middle schools. At its original Federal campus, the number of students who scored proficient in math dropped by 17 percentage point and scores in reading and writing dropped by five and eight percentage points respectively. The Lake campus saw similar declines, although the dropoff in writing was not as precipitous. STRIVE  is slated to be a part of the Kepner turnaround process. Chalkbeat will be digging into STRIVE’s decline and the performance of the city’s charter networks later this week.

Mixed performance among school networks

One of the district’s key strategies for its lowest performing schools has been to organize them into networks, like the systems of schools in west and far northeast Denver. Schools in the networks receive targeted support from the district and often use similar strategies to try and improve student outcomes.

For example, schools in the Far Northeast network, which is known as the Denver Summit School Network, have longer days and years. They also participate in a small-group math tutoring program. Some other networks are based solely on geography (for example, the district’s elementary networks) or school type (like charter or innovation).

DPS TCAP 2014_Networks graphic
How much have scores changed in three years? Blue indicates increase, red indicates decrease. Note: change indicates the number of points gained or lost between 2012 and 2014.

Find out which network your school is in here.

This year’s results show that the network strategy has produced mixed results. The Far Northeast turnaround network and the West Denver Network, which is also targeted at struggling schools, both saw declines in multiple subject areas. Charter schools saw a slight decline in performance in both reading and math, and overall performance remained slightly below the district average. And the district’s alternative pathways schools, which serve students who are at risk or have already dropped out of school, saw their already low levels of proficiency decline further.

One exception to the overall declines in the district’s targeted initiatives is the district’s innovation schools, which have increased across all subjects.

For example, the percent of students at Valdez Elementary reading and writing proficiently increased by double-digits and the school saw a small increase in math as well. Innovation schools receive increased freedom from state and district requirements, under a 2008 law.

Note that over half the district’s innovation schools are in that network. Manual High School, for example, was moved into the high school network after its low performance came to light earlier this year. Others are in the Pathways Schools network or one of the district’s two turnaround networks.

Send us your DPS TCAP questions. We’ll take the best questions and answer them in a followup post. You can find us at tips@co.chalkbeat.org or on Twitter @chalkbeatCO.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”