Datahead

Denver and Aurora schools showed modest gains on state tests. But gaps still remain.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

Two large Colorado school districts with substantial numbers of students living in poverty — Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools — showed modest improvement in the second year of state tests measuring students’ mastery of tougher academic standards.

Despite those gains, both districts still lag behind the state average — and in Aurora’s case, the gap is substantial.

Overall, the state education department’s release Thursday of district- and school-level results from PARCC math and English tests amounted to a mixed bag for most, with scores creeping up in some subjects and grades, slipping in others or remaining steady.

The picture is further muddied by a lack of student growth data that measure changes in the same group of students over time — data state officials are still compiling. Low test participation rates in higher grades also call into question district and school level scores, officials concede.

The state last month released state-level 2016 PARCC results, which showed more elementary school students were meeting expectations, while middle school scores were flat.

For the first time since the state overhauled its annual testing system in 2014 to align to the politically controversial Common Core State Standards, teachers, parents and taxpayers are able to compare year-to-year results in most subjects and grades.

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment.
A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment.

The results, along with other measures such as graduation rates, will determine the quality ratings of schools and districts. Those ratings will be released later this fall. For some schools, another round of poor results could mean state intervention — something that has never happened before.

Like last year, anti-testing sentiment ran highest in Boulder and wealthier suburban Denver enclaves, as well as in some rural districts. Older students were more likely to not take the tests while the overwhelming majority of younger students took them, also echoing last year’s trends.

At Boulder’s Fairview High School, just 72 of 514 ninth graders took the PARCC English test.

Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s director of assessments, said lower participation rates invite scrutiny.

“When I’m looking at a school with a high number of kids who met or exceeded expectations, with 98 percent participation, the confidence I can have in those results is higher than at a school with an even higher number of students who met or exceed expectations but had only 40 percent participation,” Zurkowski said.

The big five

Results from the state’s five largest school districts mostly mirrored statewide results, which most notably showed gains in elementary school math.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, showed gains in all but one test. The district only lost ground in the percentage of students who met or exceeded the state’s benchmarks in seventh grade math, dropping by 2.6 percentage points. The district’s largest leap in the percentage of students who cleared the state’s benchmarks was in fourth grade English, with a jump of 5.5 percentage points.

“A decade ago, we were 25 points behind the rest of the state,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “Now we’re about 3 or 4 points behind the rest of the state. Against that benchmark, we’ve made very consistent, very striking progress.”

Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district, saw gains in math in every grade but sixth. But it lost ground across the board on the state’s English tests. Its largest drop, 6.4 percentage points, was in the ninth grade.

“We are pleased to be improving in math given the higher level expectations of the CMAS/PARCC assessments,” Superintendent Dan McMinimee said in a statement. “Reading will continue to be a focus for our district improvement planning and we won’t be satisfied until all of our students are meeting or exceeding state expectations.”

The state’s third largest school district, Douglas County, made gains in math at the elementary school level, but lost ground in middle and high school. The south-suburban school district had wild swings on the English test. Ninth graders gained 5.7 points on that test, but seventh graders lost 7 points.

Strong gains in math were made in Cherry Creek elementary schools. But sixth graders this year lost 4 percentage points. The state’s fourth largest school district had more mixed results on the English test. There was a 2.8 percentage point increase in the number of fourth graders who were at grade level in English. But there was a 2.3 percentage point drop at the eighth grade level.

Julie Skupa, Cherry Creek’s assistant superintendent of assessment and improvement, said the district could attribute its higher math scores in part to a new curriculum.

“It goes beyond knowledge and rote memorization, and requires students to do a lot of problem-solving,” she said.

Aurora Public Schools, the fifth largest school district, saw mostly improvements. Students made gains in every grade on the English test except for grades six and eight. Similarly, Aurora showed increases in the number of students who met state expectations on the math test in every grade except for sixth and seventh.

“We’re seeing the first overall increase in performance since the 2011 school year,” said Superintendent Rico Munn, who has been leading an aggressive school improvement agenda. “We hope we can attribute that to our increase in rigor and relevance, our effort to make sure we have a high-quality teaching staff, and focus on our strategic plan.”

Growing pains

Changes made to Colorado’s testing system during the 2015 legislative session — including who takes the tests and how they take the tests — complicated this year’s release. School leaders voiced their frustration over slow-to-be-released and incomplete data that in some cases can’t be used to make comparisons to last year’s results.

For starters, this year’s upper division math results can’t be compared to last year’s because different grade levels took those tests. In 2015, middle school and high school students were eligible to take the state’s most advanced math tests. However, after lawmakers eliminated testing in the 10th and 11th grades, only seventh through ninth graders were able to take those tests.

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014.
Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014.

The upshot: you can’t compare results between the two years.

And for the second year in a row, Colorado has released results from its tests piecemeal. While schools are getting their results three months earlier than they did last year, the results are still slower than anyone expected.

“What they promised was that through the online system, we’d get results back sooner than later,” Skupa said, adding that it’s difficult for districts to make any meaningful changes after the school year has started. “It’s these bits and pieces that make it difficult to create a big picture view.”

Part of the slowdown this year, Zurkowski said, is that school districts were allowed to use pencil-and-paper tests on a much larger scale. But that’s only part of the problem, she said.

“I believe the PARCC consortium underestimated the complexity of scoring and reporting their assessments, especially in the first few years,” she said. “I do believe that not only Colorado but the PARCC consortium is committed to continue to find ways to improve that turnaround time.”

Paper-and-pencil tests are causing another set of concerns for the state. Last year, the state acknowledged that students who used paper tests performed better than they would have if they used online tests. Test that were impacted included the third grade English test and upper division high school math tests.

Zurkowski said that while the department has theories as to why the bump happened — students could have felt more comfortable writing out equations than keyboarding them — it doesn’t know for certain.

“There was a lot to sort through,” she said. “… Honestly, we don’t know what specifically the issue is.”

To ensure that didn’t happen this year, the state education department ran results from about 16 schools that used paper tests through a series of mathematical procedures ensuring students would get the same score whether they took the test on paper or online, Zurkowski said.

The additional steps make the results more reliable, Zurkowski said, but the department is still urging caution when it comes to looking at those schools.

“We’re not going to over-interpret at this point,” she said.

Search for your school

Use Chalkbeat’s database to search for your school’s individual results on the math and English tests. The green bar represents the number of students who met or exceeded the standards. The yellow bar represents the number of students who took the tests. State officials have cautioned that low participation rates could skew results.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:

 

School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.