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.

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.