Performance Gap

Colorado students with disabilities continue to struggle on PARCC tests

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

Three years into Colorado’s move to more challenging tests aligned with the state’s academic standards, the gaps separating the scores of students with and without disabilities remain wide, especially in English language arts.

The majority of Colorado students are not meeting the state’s expectations on the tests. But the results for students with disabilities — a broad category that covers many kinds of disabilities — are particularly low.

The gaps tell that story: On last spring’s English tests, just 6.9 percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded the state’s expectations, compared with 46.2 percent of the rest of the test-taking population. That is bigger gap than when students first took the PARCC math and English tests in 2015. To be precise, the gap grew 2.4 percentage points.

That gulf in English results is one of the largest achievement disparities in the state.

Math scores are lower across the board for Colorado students, and the gap separating students with disabilities from those without shrunk slightly this year — from 29.5 percentage points to 29.2 — after growing by about 2 points in 2016.

Students with learning disabilities have historically underperformed compared with the general student population on standardized tests. But experts say that with the right help, they should be just as likely to score well on standardized tests as students without disabilities.

A relatively small number of students have cognitive disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome. The majority of students with disabilities have speech impediments, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and emotional disabilities, experts say.  

Toby King, interim director of the state’s special education office, said narrowing the gaps will be crucial in the coming years.

Paying attention to the individual needs of students with disabilities is key, King said. He cautioned educators against lumping students with disabilities together, as not every kid experiences the same barriers to learning.

“In a lot of cases these kids with disabilities, though they may look one way on a state assessment sometimes they look quite different when you look at the local assessments,” King said.

The gaps for students with disabilities are playing out at the local level, too. In Denver Public Schools, the gaps on the English test are nearly 75 percentage points at some schools. On math, the gap tops out at 54 percentage points.

Diane Smith, director of special education for DPS, said that many teachers don’t expect students with learning disabilities to succeed, and that those low expectations show up in test scores.

Smith said providing more supportive classroom environments is the most significant step that can help students with disabilities improve academically.

“We want to be sure teachers have high enough expectations,” Smith said. “Sometimes when a child is labeled in a way, teachers make assumptions that students can’t do more, and they often can.”

Smith said DPS recently restructured its special education department in an effort to lift student achievement, creating a couple of new positions — a math specialist and literacy specialist to help train teachers and help them with instruction.

King, of the state, said districts must be responsible for addressing these instructional deficiencies.

“There’s gotta be a more intentional focus on instruction for all kids, but particularly these kids who learn differently or who respond differently,” he said. “These gaps, though pretty significant and persisting over time, are really indicative of a need to do something a little bit differently at the local district level.”

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:


School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.