Data dive

Denver, Boulder schools home to the state’s largest achievement gaps based on race, new data shows

From left to right Harian Aldama, Miguel Silva, and Julian Aldama look over a reading and writing lesson on the classroom board in Jessica Cirelli's third-grade class at Escuela Bilingue Pioneer Elementary in Boulder on Tuesday morning May 7, 2013. (Denver Post file)

Since Colorado introduced new, more challenging state math and English tests in 2015, schools and families have seen a steady — and often slow — trickle of results.

Now, the Colorado Department of Education is making available two years’ worth of test scores showing achievement gaps within districts and schools.

The data show wide differences between how different student groups score — for example, gaps separating black and Hispanic students from white students, or students with special needs from other students, or students who qualify for subsidized lunches and those who don’t.

On Monday, state officials quietly posted district- and school-level scores broken by student subgroups for the 2016 and 2017 tests. What took so long? Officials say they had to follow data suppression rules meant to prevent individual students from being identified, and it took time.

During the next few days, we’ll be examining this data — starting today with race and ethnicity-based gaps:

Here’s how the state’s fourth graders performed on 2017 math and English tests:

Here’s how the state’s seventh graders performed on the 2017 math and English tests:

There are two important caveats to keep in mind looking at seventh grade data. First, the number of students who take the state’s tests begins to dip in middle school. The smaller the sample, the less reliable the data. Second, some seventh graders choose to take more advanced math tests.

The widest gaps between white and Hispanic students appear in Denver and Boulder. In both districts, the gap on the fourth-grade math test is 42 percentage points. The next widest gap, 34 percentage points, is in the Poudre School District.

The math gap is worse for Denver seventh graders: 50 percentage points.

One reason why the gap is so pronounced in Denver is because white students are scoring particularly well on the state’s tests. In fact, a larger percentage of white students in Denver met or exceeded the state’s expectations on the four tests Chalkbeat looked at than white students in the other nine large school districts.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he believes one reason why gaps remain so wide in the state’s largest school district is because white students are benefiting from many districtwide initiatives aimed at improving learning for students of color.

“In some ways, it’s a reflection of how privilege operates in our society,” he said. “Clearly we want to and do offer high-quality supports for all kids and we want to offer a higher level and intensity to our higher-needs schools for the simple fact that those needs are greater.”

Boasberg pointed to new initiatives meant to close gaps. First, DPS is targeting a larger proportion of its 2016 voter-approved tax increases at students who qualify for government-subsidized lunches. Schools will receive $4 for those student for every $1 they receive for students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Second, beginning this year, schools cannot earn a “green” rating on the district’s quality reports — the second highest rating on the color-coded system — if students in all subgroups don’t make academic progress.

The Boulder Valley School District is also in the early stages of putting into place updated strategies to address learning gaps, said Samantha Messier, assistant superintendent of instructional services and equity. The school district is training teachers on how to provide different resources to match the needs of different students.

“We’re deeply concerned that we have these gaps,” she said. “It’s not a pattern we’re proud of.”

She went on to echo Boasberg.

“An interesting thing to note, Denver and Boulder also have the highest rates of income inequality in the state,” she said. “So you might see that play out at the school-district level. You’re seeing the effects of institutional racism that exist at a societal level playing out. I do hope we figure it out.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

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: