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.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” said district spokeswoman Janelle Asmus. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, said Asmus. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.

moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.