academic growth

After latest test scores, some Denver schools celebrate success, while others wonder what went wrong

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post

Students from one Denver elementary school in west Denver showed astronomical progress on state tests after the school diligently adhered to state academic standards, gave teachers a tighter focus on particular subjects and helped students outside the classroom.

Across town in northeast Park Hill, another school was surprised to see its progress take a dive after previously being one of Denver Public Schools’ shining stars — even though it had built on strategies school leaders thought were responsible for its previous success.

Data released this week measuring student growth on the state’s English and math tests identifies schools that are leading the pack and those falling behind. But for every school that can point to steps taken that may have moved the needle, there are others that can’t quite put their finger on it, illustrating the difficulty of drawing definitive conclusions from test results.

The numbers released this week are called median growth percentiles, and they gauge how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers.

Students — and schools — that have a median growth percentile greater than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers who scored similarly on state tests, known as PARCC. A score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate.

Districtwide, Denver Public Schools students had a median growth percentile of 56 in English and 51 in math. But the scores of individual schools varied widely.

Some Denver schools with high growth were also high-scoring, meaning many of their students met or exceeded state expectations on the tests, which students in grades three through nine took last spring. Others were low-scoring but making rapid academic progress.

The same was true for schools with low growth. Some continued a trend of scoring poorly on the tests. For others that had previously done well, the new numbers represent a backslide.

That’s the case at Smith Renaissance School. The northeast Park Hill elementary school showed extraordinary academic growth in 2014, the last time figures were available. (The state did not release them in 2015 because it was the first year students took the PARCC tests — and calculating growth requires at least two years of data.) Smith’s numbers were so high, the district gave it a “blue” rating for growth, the highest Denver Public Schools awards.

This time, the school’s median growth percentile in math was 12, the lowest in the district. In English, it was 32.5, which was 21.5 points below the district average for elementary schools.

Principal Emily El Moudaffar said the school takes its scores seriously.

“It was a surprise,” she said of Smith’s low growth. “But even though it was a surprise, we are doing everything we can to identify root causes and make adjustments.”

She said the school has worked hard on improving its instruction and that all the right elements seemed to be in place last year, including strong teachers and effective lesson planning.

But before Smith even received its PARCC scores, El Moudaffar said the school decided to ramp up its focus on students’ social and emotional needs. Nearly 94 percent of kids last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

This year, Smith has a new assistant principal whose entire job is making sure students needs are met so they can spend their time learning, El Moudaffar said. She also hired an additional social worker to connect families with mental health services and other resources, and a second restorative justice coordinator to help mediate conflicts between students.

Another new element this year is that instead of jumping right into academics at the start of the school day, students spend 25 minutes each morning in a “class council meeting” where they’ll talk about expectations for the day, she said. The school will also hold weekly assemblies to celebrate students who meet those expectations and others.

El Moudaffar said she hopes the efforts will “rebound us as quickly as possible.”

Conversely, Fairview, located in the Sun Valley neighborhood, saw huge growth this year after earning the lowest possible growth score in 2014. In math, Fairview’s median growth percentile was 71, a full 20 points above the district average. In English, it was 68.5.

Most of the school’s raw scores were still lower than district averages, though third-graders scored higher than average in English while fourth-graders did the same in math.

Principal Antoinette Hudson said the school hasn’t made any radical changes since she took the helm in 2013. It’s still a traditional district-run school that serves a high-needs population. Last year, 99 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

Instead, Hudson said she and others worked to align the curriculum to the state standards that dictate what students should learn in each grade. She split teachers’ duties so some could focus on reading while others focused on math, and she made sure they had extended and uninterrupted blocks of time to teach those two key subjects.

She said the school also puts a premium on students’ non-academic needs, providing breakfast and inviting an organization to hand out bags of food on Friday afternoons so families have meals over the weekend. Using a combination of grants and district money, Hudson said she’s able to have mental health workers at the school five days a week.

“It’s a collective effort of people putting their heart into this work,” Hudson said.

Denver’s biggest charter school network, DSST, posted above-average growth at nine of the 10 schools that were open last school year. (Two more DSST schools opened this fall.)

The numbers at some of its schools, including DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School and DSST: Byers Middle School, were well above district averages. DSST: Cole Middle School was behind, with median growth percentiles of 47 in math and 46 in English.

However, tracking math growth for older students is tricky. Starting in seventh grade, students can take any one of five PARCC math tests. Students who took tests two grade levels higher than their own grade level did not have growth results in math, state education officials said. For DSST, that meant 333 eighth-graders were not included, according to the network.

The STRIVE charter network has 11 schools, eight of which posted growth data from last year. Its numbers were more mixed, with most but not all schools exceeding district averages.

One school, STRIVE Prep SMART Academy high school, had much lower median growth percentiles than the rest: 24 in math and 30.5 in English.

But network CEO Chris Gibbons cautioned against judging a high school by its PARCC scores alone since only 9th graders were required to take the tests last year. He pointed out that SMART Academy had an average ACT score of 18.7, which is slightly higher than the district average, and that 92 percent of seniors were accepted to four-year colleges.

However, Gibbons also said the network is prioritizing replicating at SMART Academy the strong math growth that occurred at STRIVE Prep Excel high school. It posted a median growth percentile of 62, which is 7 points higher than the district average for high school math.

McAuliffe International middle school in north Park Hill also saw blockbuster growth numbers: 72 in math and 84 in English. The school is high-scoring, with 82 percent of sixth-graders meeting or exceeding state expectations on the English PARCC test, for example.

McAuliffe is a relatively new school; this is the fifth year it’s been open. Its ongoing success led the district to approve a second, smaller McAuliffe campus that opened last month and will eventually be housed at the long-struggling Manual High School in the Whittier neighborhood.

Kurt Dennis, principal at the original McAuliffe, said he’s not sure there’s a secret to the school’s success. But he ticked off several factors that may have helped. McAuliffe is an innovation school, which means it’s free from certain rules and policies. The school has a longer day and a longer year, which allows for 30 percent more instructional time each year, Dennis said.

McAuliffe is also a big school, with 825 students last year. Dennis said the size allows teachers to specialize in a single subject, such as algebra, and to collaborate with a team of teachers who teach the same class. Because of the school’s extended hours, core content teachers also have three hours per day to plan and create lessons together, he said.

“The idea is that if you give teachers a manageable workload … and as much planning time as possible, they’re going to do great work,” Dennis said.

McAuliffe also has a relatively low poverty rate. Just 20 percent of students last year qualified for subsidized lunches. Districtwide, 68 percent of Denver Public Schools students qualify.

Dennis said that despite his confidence in the school’s teachers and students, he was pleasantly surprised by this year’s PARCC status and growth scores.

“To see the types of results that we saw surpassed even our best expectations,” he said.

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.