growing gaps

Denver students of color not making as much progress on state tests as white peers

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Escuela Valdez about academic growth.

Denver Public Schools students from disadvantaged backgrounds are progressing far slower on state tests than their more privileged peers — and the gulf between the groups is widening.

White students in DPS are making bigger gains from year to year on state math and English tests than students of color, according to data released this week.

The difference separating those two populations is larger than the last time academic growth figures were available. English learners and students living in poverty face similar growth gaps — and the largest difference is between students with disabilities and those without disabilities.

“Already we are asking ourselves lots of very hard questions, and we need to have lots of far-reaching discussions on the changes we need to eliminate those growth gaps,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

The growth data released by the Colorado Department of Education show Denver students overall are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers, as they have for years. Progress on English tests was especially strong.

The state’s largest school district considers the academic growth of its students more important than how well they score on state English and math tests, known as PARCC.

With a harder-to-serve population, DPS has long trailed state average test scores, although the district is catching up. District officials reason that measuring how much students learned in a year is a better gauge of school quality than students’ raw scores, which can depend on whether they were ahead or behind academically when they entered school.

“What’s most important is not where you start but how much you grow,” Boasberg said Tuesday to students at Escuela Valdez, a dual-language elementary school in northwest Denver that posted the highest growth scores in the district.

DPS vs. the state

The state’s median growth percentile is always about 50.

Groups of students, schools and districts that have a percentile score higher than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers. A percentile score lower than 50 means on average students are learning at a slower rate than their peers.

DPS’s score in English was 56, which is an increase for DPS. The last time growth numbers were released, in 2014, DPS posted a 53 in reading and 55 in writing. Growth rates could not be calculated in 2015 because that was the first year students took the PARCC tests.

DPS’s median growth percentile in math was 51. That represents a decrease. The last time DPS’s growth was that low was in 2008. In 2014, for example, it was 55.

Boasberg said he’s disappointed in the math growth. The number for sixth-grade math was especially low at 46. “It’s important we discuss closely why we saw a drop,” he said.

However, he said the district’s foremost concern is its growing achievement gaps between students with more privilege and those with less.

For example, the median growth percentile in math for white students was 63, while the number for black and Latino students was 47, a 16-point gap. That’s a bigger difference than in 2014, when it was 9 points. It’s also much bigger than this year’s statewide gap, which is 7 points.

Black and Latino students made up 70 percent of the approximately 91,000 students in DPS last year. Meanwhile, 23 percent of students were white.

The median growth percentile in math for students who qualify for subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty, was also 47. The number for those who don’t qualify was 61. That’s a 14-point gap, which is twice as big as the state gap. In 2014, DPS’s gap was 8 points.

Nearly 69 percent of DPS students qualified for subsidized lunches last year.

Growth is king

Academic growth is the most heavily weighted factor in DPS’s color-coded school rating system, known as the School Performance Framework. For elementary and middle schools, it counts for 66 percent of the rating. For high schools, it counts for 45 percent of the rating.

District officials recently debated whether to change that. They were considering making academic status — the raw scores students earn on the tests — count for more. Academic status currently counts for just 22 percent of an elementary school’s rating, for example.

But in the end, officials decided against recommending a shift. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said they were concerned that putting more emphasis on status “would not accurately describe what we think is most important in schools, particularly schools that have a large number of low-income students,” who have historically scored lower on tests.

“The only way get better is an outsized emphasis on growth,” she said.

Boasberg cited a number of possible fixes to narrow the district’s achievement gaps: Investing in more school psychologists, social workers and nurses to tend to the social and emotional needs of at-risk students; strengthening early literacy programs to eliminate reading gaps among young kids; and providing better coaching for teachers to improve instruction.

Funding for all of those initiatives is included in a tax increase proposal DPS is asking voters to approve in November, he pointed out.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.