Data dive

In Boulder, students with special needs are outperforming their state peers but are far behind their own classmates

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

For two years in a row, Colorado education officials have raised concerns about how students with special needs are falling far behind on state English and math tests.

This week, we’re getting a better sense of which school districts are following the state trend and which ones are bucking it.

The state on Monday released data from the 2016 and 2017 PARCC exams broken down by different student groups. Chalkbeat has spent a few days looking at the data, first by race and ethnicity and then by socioeconomic status. Today we’re looking at how students with learning disabilities in the state’s 10 largest school districts performed compared to their peers.

Students with learning disabilities historically underperform the general student population on standardized tests. However, advocates say that with the right help, students with non-cognitive disabilities should be just as likely to score well.

That isn’t happening in many of the state’s largest school districts. Here’s a look at how the results break down:

Some of the widest gaps are in northern Front Range school districts such as Poudre, Boulder Valley and St. Vrain.

Boulder is a unique case. While the achievement gap there is wide, students with learning disabilities are outperforming their state peers.

Boulder officials suggested a longstanding and close partnership between their special education department and curriculum specialist could be a key factor in the higher scores.

“There’s a lot of cross training,” said Samantha Messier, Boulder’s assistant superintendent of instructional services and equity. “That’s something that is paying off for students.”

Meanwhile, school districts such as Denver and Aurora are rethinking some of their special education policies.

In Denver, the district is pushing to have students with learning disabilities spend more time in general education classrooms.

“The main focus is on providing the individualized supports that students with disabilities need,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “And we’re significantly increasing our inclusion practices. Many more of our students with disabilities are included more of the time with their general education peers.”

The charter-friendly school district has also required its charter schools to take on greater responsibility in meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

The Aurora school district has hired consultants to help the district better identify students with learning disabilities, intervene earlier and provide them with the proper learning environment.

“We’ve gotten better with early interventions,” said Superintendent Rico Munn.

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.