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.

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.