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.”

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.