Data dive

Why this large Colorado school district isn’t focused on its achievement gaps

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment.

The Colorado Department of Education earlier this week published data that show how different groups of students performed on the state’s English and math tests.

We’re dissecting the data a couple different ways. Our first look Wednesday examined the racial achievement gaps in the state’s 10 largest school districts and found that Denver and Boulder had the widest.

Today, we’re looking at gaps through a socioeconomic lens. Schools measure poverty by how many students qualify for government subsidized lunches. We’ve compared test results for students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals and for those who don’t.

Students in poverty can face a myriad of challenges that impact learning: unstable housing, chronic absenteeism due to family responsibilities and health problems such as uncontrolled asthma or tooth decay.

Not surprisingly, the poverty gaps are similar to those based on race: Denver and Boulder have the largest gaps at more than 40 percentage points. Most of the other large school districts have gaps in the low to mid-30s.

Aurora Public Schools and Colorado Springs District 11 have much smaller gaps, mostly in the teens or low 20s. That’s not necessarily because their poor students are doing better than their peers across the state. It’s because their more affluent students aren’t passing the math and English tests.

Here’s a look at the results:

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said his concern isn’t about closing gaps, but improving outcomes for all students.

“We need to lift all boats,” he said. “We’re not in a situation where there is some group that is way outperforming another.”

That doesn’t mean Munn and his team aren’t keeping track of the gaps. He said it’s important to understand the unique challenges each student population faces.

“What we don’t want is for someone’s demographic profile to determine their outcomes,” Munn said.

The inner-suburban Denver school district has launched a series of reform efforts to boost student learning. Teachers districtwide have been trained on how to better engage students. A group of schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood, near the Denver border, has been granted more freedom to make changes to address student needs. And the district has also rolled out a new math curriculum.

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.