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.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.

From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits

Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.