in response

Concerns about reading scores and school ratings prompt Denver district to send letters to families

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Van Current, 6, left, and Natasha Williams, 7, read quietly together at Denver Green School.

Early elementary school families in Denver will get individual reading progress reports from the school district next month explaining how their children are doing against higher standards meant to better predict whether students will be reading on grade level by third grade.

The letters are being sent in response to mounting concerns that scores from early literacy tests taken by students in kindergarten through third grade are painting too rosy a picture of their reading abilities. The state-required early literacy tests are less rigorous than the state-required reading and writing tests taken by students in grades three through nine.

Last week, the leaders of six civil rights and community groups issued a joint letter echoing concerns from some education advocates that the district is “significantly overstating literacy gains.” Denver uses scores from the early literacy tests to help rate elementary schools, which the groups said has led to inflated ratings that are misleading parents.

At a school board meeting Thursday, representatives from the six groups and other community leaders repeated a call for Denver Public Schools to revise the color-coded school ratings before February, when families will begin to choose schools for next year.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told the school board and Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Boasberg reiterated at the meeting that the district would not change this year’s ratings, which were released in October. However, he said it will issue reports to families of students in kindergarten through third grade about their student’s reading progress.

“At the end of the day, the most important goal here is that our students get on track,” he said.

Many students who scored well on the early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation, did not do as well on the more rigorous state tests, which are called PARCC. The state and the district consider PARCC the gold standard measure of what students should know.

Third-graders are the only students required by the state to take both tests. Some Denver schools had wide gaps between the percentage of third-graders who scored at grade level on iStation and the percentage who did on PARCC. Examples include:

  • Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, where 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.
  • Farrell B. Howell in far northeast Denver, where 74 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or above on iStation, but only 11 percent did on PARCC.
  • Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment in east-central Denver, where 81 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or above on iStation, but 30 percent did on PARCC.

All three schools were rated “green” this year, the district’s second-highest rating.

Most Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system, which does not take early literacy test scores into account. Denver uses its own rating system, called the School Performance Framework, which does. Including early literacy scores provides a more comprehensive look at how all of a school’s students, from kindergarten to fifth grade, are performing, Boasberg said.

Due to a change this year in the School Performance Framework formula, the early literacy scores made up more of an elementary school’s rating than in past years.

Boasberg said it has become clear that scores from iStation and other early literacy tests don’t line up with PARCC scores. He emphasized that it’s a statewide issue. A state law called the READ Act requires students to take the early literacy tests, and the “cut points” the district uses to score students were set by the state.

He previously announced the district would raise the cut points for the early literacy tests starting in 2019. The higher cut points will be used to calculate school ratings, making it harder for elementary schools to earn top marks. The district will continue to use the state cut points to identify students who qualify for help under the READ Act.

The law requires the state to send extra money to districts to help students who score “significantly below grade level” in reading. Melissa Colsman, the associate commissioner of student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said the state cut points are meant to identify the most struggling students, not to indicate whether students will be proficient on PARCC.

“Scoring above the cut scores on the reading assessments does not mean a student is proficient,” she wrote in an email. “It just means the student is not significantly below grade level. There is a gap between being significantly deficient and being proficient.”

The individual reports Denver Public Schools will send to families in January will make clear whether their children are hitting the targets, or “aimlines,” they need to hit on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade level on the third-grade PARCC test, Boasberg said.

Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver and one of the leaders who expressed concerns, said that while the district’s promise to send individual reports to families doesn’t alleviate those concerns, “it’s progress.” He said the bigger issue is whether the district should be using results from the less rigorous early literacy tests to rate schools at all.

“That’s where the real public policy discussion needs to continue to happen,” Bradley said. “There’s some progress being made but we still have work to do.”

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.

coaching the coaches

Some of Denver’s top teachers will get training to better help their colleagues

PHOTO: John Leyba/Denver Post
Joey Denoncourt was a teacher coach at College View Elementary in 2016. He is not part of the first fellowship cohort.

Twenty Denver teachers are part of a new pilot project to invest even more resources in what the school district considers a key strategy: having teachers coach other teachers.

Denver Public Schools has a name for these teacher coaches: “senior team leads.” They are paid a stipend on top of their regular salaries to split their time between teaching in their own classrooms and observing other teachers. They give the teachers feedback, help them plan lessons, and, in some cases, formally evaluate them, just like a principal would. Data shows teachers like the approach and their students benefit from it.

A new yearlong fellowship that kicked off Monday will give a small number of these teacher coaches monthly training on how to get better at a role district officials say is all too rare in public education. The Thrive Fellowship will include conversations with leadership experts and opportunities for teachers to learn from each other what’s working in their schools.

Some of that was already happening in the first hour of the fellowship’s inaugural get-together. By way of introduction, the teachers shared a memorable experience they’d had in the role. Several talked about what they did to break through to a resistant teacher. One shared how she organized “family dinners” for teachers to get to know one another outside of work.

Yet another talked about using her dual role to bring together her school’s “disjointed” special education department and come up with a better way to teach students with disabilities.

“Because I was alongside and teaching with my other team members, it was what we need to kickstart and become a more collaborative team,” teacher Rosie Britt said.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the fellowship “a very intentional investment.”

“Each one of these leaders has an impact – a large impact,” he said of the 20 teachers. “So how do we help them learn and grow to have that impact be as powerful as possible?”

Denver Public Schools has already invested heavily in teacher coaching. Officially known as “teacher leadership and collaboration,” or TLC, it began in the 2013-14 school year as a grant-funded pilot with 51 teacher coaches at 14 schools. It’s now in nearly all of the more than 160 district-run schools, and there are more than 500 teachers coaching other teachers.

The expansion was partly funded by a tax increase passed by Denver voters in 2016. The Thrive Fellowship is being funded by a $2 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The grant is also funding other leadership work and will pay for a second fellowship cohort in the 2019-20 school year focused on special education teacher coaches. Being a special education teacher can be isolating, district officials explained, and some of the district’s biggest achievement gaps are between students with and without disabilities.

The district created the teacher coach role in part to encourage great teachers to stay in the classroom rather than leave to become assistant principals or principals. The ultimate goal, officials say, is to boost student achievement by helping teachers get better at what they do.

District officials have been tracking whether that’s happening. They’ve found that the students of teachers who were supported by coaches for two or more years made more academic progress on state literacy and math tests than the students of teachers who were coached for less time or not coached at all, according to data recently presented to the school board.

And survey results show teachers like the model. When asked which leaders at their school were effective, 89 percent of teachers said the teacher who coaches them was an effective leader. Only 82 percent said their principal was effective.

The idea of the fellowship is to raise those numbers even higher, district officials said.

Pete Martinez is one of the 20 teachers in the fellowship. He works at Joe Shoemaker Elementary in southeast Denver, where he spends half his time coaching teachers and half his time teaching kindergarten and first-grade students who are struggling in reading.

He said the dual role is most powerful when teachers “can see a support partner, a coach, that is sometimes teaching beside them and in many ways owning the success of their kids.” He hopes the fellowship gives him and the other teachers time to pick each others’ brains.

“What are other schools grappling with?” Martinez said. “What are the solutions they are already thinking about and how can we transfer that to other schools, to my own building?”