Denver Public Schools is launching a new system that would begin monitoring students’ preparation for college and career as early as kindergarten.

The new plan, outlined in an internal document acquired by EdNews Colorado, establishes so-called “gateways” for students, benchmarks at certain grade levels that can help predict whether a student will be college-ready.

The gateways will not be used to hold schools or teachers accountable for their performance, said Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief academic officer and head of the team leading the design. Instead, the question is “what are some key places in a student’s career where we need to make sure we support?”

Parents and teachers would be able to track a student’s progress, either through the parent portal or some other method. The district plans to also build tools for parents to help support their student’s progress on the benchmarks.

The gateways program is still in its first stages. A district spokesperson said that the gateways won’t go into effect until after the board revises the Denver Plan, the district’s blueprint for raising student achievement. The timeline for that will be set by the new school board after the election.

Tracking students for success

The gateways system is based on one used in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, called Seven Keys to College Readiness.

“Montgomery County has had a strong track record of closing the achievement gap,” said Cordova. “They have used these seven keys to success for years.”

The district decided on seven gateways from kindergarten to high school graduation, based largely on students’ performances on standardized tests (see below for a description of the seven gateways). These include Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) math and reading tests, the American College Testing (ACT) test for high school seniors, and the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) for kindergarteners.

Cordova also said it will give parents, teachers and principals a concrete understanding of how a student is progressing.

In addition to making it to the next gateway, the goals for students are tied to metrics of future success. According to the district, college and career readiness starts far earlier than high school.

For example, students who meet the third grade benchmark are two and a half times more likely to enroll in college without remediation. Passing the eighth grade benchmark leads to an eight-fold gain. A description of each grade’s metric and its effect on a student’s future is available below .

Cordova’s team is also contemplating including social and emotional benchmarks as well.

“Academic preparation is one piece of it,” said Cordova. “But they also need to learn the social and emotional skills for success, like grit, resilience.”

She said they want to stay away from grading students on their character, as some schools do. Instead, they might use something like extracurricular participation.

Current state of affairs

If one of the goals of the program is better college readiness for Denver students, the district’s own data shows it has a long way to go. Kindergarten is the only area where more than 50 percent of students pass the gateway.

Denver Public Schools is growing faster than any urban district in the U.S., largely by enticing back students who were choosing to attend school elsewhere. The school district’s administration has touted growth measures exceeding the state’s and growth performance unrivaled by any of the large Colorado school districts.

But all that growth may not be moving fast enough to make up the district’s gaps in achievement. The last state ranking for the district showed no area where the district met expectations of achievement.

By introducing gateway measurements, the district will be telling a more mixed message. In kindergarten, students are doing relatively well, with 67 percent meeting or exceeding the benchmark. Students in third grade show considerable progress on the benchmark, with 50 percent meeting the benchmark compared with 39 percent five years ago.

After third grade, that progress stalls. By the time Denver students reach the final benchmark, only 13 percent will pass, a state little different than five years ago.

At the moment, few of the district’s middle and high school students meet the academic goals laid out by the gateways program.

Denver’s middle schools, which have been at the center of the controversy over district reforms, tout high growth on state measures. The release of these benchmarks shows, that despite those gains, performance remains low. Only 33 percent of middle school students score proficient or better in math and reading on the TCAP, the benchmark for eighth grade.

Despite increases in graduation, the post-secondary performance of Denver students has not dramatically improved. College enrollment has only increased by 3 percent, despite the district’s growth in student numbers. Enrollment is currently at 47 percent or 1,705 students. That’s down from a peak of 1,719 students in 2010, when the district’s college enrollment was 50 percent.

College remediation rates have also increased in the past five years, from 57.1 percent to 59.7 percent.

Wide achievement gap

The achievement gap remains a gaping canyon on the district’s gateways, with an average 30 point difference between students who live in poverty and those who don’t. The gap is narrower for English language learners, with an average 14.5 point difference.

Fifth grade has the widest gap for impoverished students. Only 34 percent of students living in poverty passed the benchmark, compared with 73 of students above the poverty level. The gap lingers in eighth grade, with a third as many impoverished students passing the benchmark compared with their more affluent peers. The gap narrows in high school, to 21 percent.

English language learners follow a similar pattern, with narrowest performance differences in kindergarten and at graduation. English language natives outperform their English learner peers by the widest margin in third grade, with a margin of 21 points. Eleventh grade comes a close second, with 19 points.

Any improvement?

It’s not all bad news for the district. Targeted efforts in kindergarten through third grades appear to have had some success. The number of kindergarteners meeting the benchmark has increased by 28 percent. In third grade, the number increased by 11 percent.

Those gains, however, dissipate in the older grades. The district’s growing middle school population has not outperformed its predecessors. Achievement in eighth grade has stagnated at 33 percent for the past five years. The district’s middle school enrollment grew 16.5 percent over that same time, a higher rate than the district at large.

As for graduation, the district has continued to increase the number of students graduating from high school. The district’s four year graduation rate and five year completion rate has increased from 38.7 to 58.8 percent.

Current students may not see any changes for a while. The project won’t launch for at least another year, Cordova said. But when it does, she hopes, it will give parents, teachers and administrators a more accurate picture of what a student’s progress looks like.

The Gateways

Kindergarten
Goal: Reach Text Level 4* on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)
Why? Only 51 percent of students who missed this gateway met the next one

3rd grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading and attend classes regularly
Why? Two and a half times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

5th grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading and attend classes regularly
Why? Four and a half times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

8th grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading
Why? Gain of 7 ACT points & eight times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

10th grade
Goal: Score proficient or above on TCAP math & reading
Why? Gain of 9 ACT points

11th grade
Goal: Score 22 in math & 21 in reading on the ACT
Why? Seven times more likely to enroll in college without remediation

High School
Goal: Enroll and achieve success in AP, IB or Concurrent Enrollment courses
Why? Students who passed an AP test (3 or higher) were three times more likely to immediately enroll in college without remediation