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 [email protected] or on Twitter @chalkbeatCO.

defensor escolar

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.