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.

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.