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.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
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.

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.