data dump

Colorado state test scores inch up, but wide socioeconomic gaps remain

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Three years after Colorado introduced new, more demanding standardized tests, student performance statewide is slowly ticking up, according to data released Thursday.

Most students still are falling well short of meeting the state’s expectations on the PARCC math and English tests, which are meant to measure whether students are on track to be prepared for life after high school.

But state officials applauded progress: 42 percent of students who took the tests last spring met the state’s learning goals in English, and 33 percent met them in math. That’s an increase of about 2 percentage points in both subjects since 2015, the first year the tests were given.

The state’s poorest students continue to academically lag behind their more affluent peers by wide margins. The gaps remain wide — some as large as 30 percentage points — and are generally not tightening because all students are making progress at about the same rate.

Only 27 percent of Colorado fourth-graders who qualify for subsidized meals at school met grade-level expectations on the English test, while 58 percent of their more affluent peers made the grade.

“We are pleased to see performance improvements by so many students across Colorado, and we know this only comes after a lot of hard work and dedication from educators, parents and students,” Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “At the same time, our focus on our historically disadvantaged students must remain a top priority. In too many cases, those groups are not showing gains at a pace that will allow them to catch up, so CDE will increase our focus on providing support to our districts and schools to help them with this challenge in the next few years.”

Those results were part of a trove of student testing data released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Education.

Besides achievement data from the state’s English and math tests, the department also released results from its science and social studies tests, and the PSAT and SAT tests that high school sophomores and juniors take. Additionally, the state released student growth data, which measures how much students learn during an academic year compared to other students who scored similarly to them on tests the previous year.

Results for individual students are shared with families, and collectively the state uses them to rate school quality. Some districts use the results in evaluating teachers — one reason the tests are controversial.

About 555,000 students between the third and 11th grades took state tests last spring.

On PARCC, participation rates ticked up slightly and ranged from 96.4 percent in the third grade to 76 percent in the ninth grade statewide. Since Colorado began giving the exams in 2015, schools especially in affluent suburbs and rural areas have struggled to meet a federal requirement of testing 95 percent of their students.

This year’s results were released earlier than in past years, and more data was released at one time. One criticism of PARCC has been how long it’s taken for results to be available.

Data transparency activists, however, are sure to cringe at array of school level results that won’t be made public due to ongoing concerns about student privacy. More than 20 percent of the results released from PARCC exams were redacted to ensure the public cannot identify an individual student’s results.

The state does this by following a complex set of rules that is set off if fewer than 16 students at a school score in a particular range. Before the state adopted these rules, it would only redact results if fewer than four students had the same score at a school.

Find your school’s PARCC scores
Search for your school’s PARCC scores in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“The new tests were supposed to provide better information about what is working and now we know far less,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education watchdog group. “It’s outrageous that CDE has arbitrarily hidden so much of the achievement data making it difficult to know whether schools or districts are working. Only through knowing what works will Colorado educators be able to improve our schools.”

There are other limitations to what the state releases. Ninth-graders can take PARCC math tests of varying degrees of difficulty. That, along with lower student participation rates on 9th grade tests, make comparisons next to impossible. This will be the last year that issue arises: This spring year, all 9th graders will take a version of the PSAT.

In fact, Colorado is beginning a transition away from PARCC tests in all grades starting this year.

District achievement results

Officials in the state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, were celebrating its positive test results.

The 92,000-student district, which serves a majority of low-income students, inched closer to meeting state averages on the tests. The number of students who met the state’s proficiency bar on the state’s English test climbed in every grade. Math results were more mixed. Scores went up on six of the state’s 11 tests.

Aurora Public Schools, the only school district at risk of facing state intervention next year if its quality rating doesn’t improve, showed increases in the number of students meeting or exceeding expectations on several tests across multiple grades including big increases for eighth-grade English tests and fifth-grade math.

But among the state’s ten largest school districts, Aurora continued to post the lowest scores. For example, only 25 percent of fourth graders in the 41,000-student district met the state’s expectations on the English test.

Which kids took which test?
Third through ninth graders took the PARCC English and math tests; fifth, eighth and 11th graders took the state’s science test. And fourth and seventh graders from sampled schools took the state’s social studies exam. Tenth graders for the second year took the PSAT 10 and 11th graders took the SAT as the state’s college entrance exam for the first time.

Progress was also mixed at school districts that serve large at-risk student populations and have a history of chronic low performance on state exams.

More detailed district and school-level data is expected within a month that will detail achievement gaps between different student groups, state officials said.

Growth

A student’s growth percentile, which ranges from 1 to 99, indicates how that student’s performance changed over time, relative to students with similar performances on state assessments. Put another way, growth is calculated by measuring how students progressed compared to students who had similar scores to them on tests given a year earlier.

This data, which makes up the majority of a school’s or district’s state quality rating, helps provide a better understanding of how students are progressing, not accounting for whether they are proficient.

The state average growth score is always at the 50 percentile, so any growth score above that is considered positive. A score of 50 represents about a year’s worth of learning.

As with achievement scores, the state’s poor students are behind their more affluent peers in academic growth. Students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunches hit the 48th percentile on English tests and the 46th percentile on math. Students that don’t qualify hit 52nd percentile on English tests and 53th percentile on math.

Students in Denver continued to post strong academic growth scores, leading the state’s five largest school districts in that measure.

Find your school’s growth scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“Every year for the past seven, in every subject, our kids have shown more growth than their peers across the state,” said Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “This year was our best growth year ever.”

Meanwhile, students in the wealthier south suburban school district of Cherry Creek fell below the state average on growth on English tests, according to the state data. While other nearby school districts were closing growth gaps between their poor and more affluent students, the gap on English tests in Cherry Creek widened by a point.

Judy Skupa, Cherry Creek’s assistant superintendent, said the district will spend time analyzing its growth data but won’t rush to make sweeping changes based on one year of data.

“Like with anything else, it’s about the trend,” she said.

– Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”

School discipline

Even as suspensions fall, Memphis students are being kicked out of school longer, data shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis alternative school students work with local activist Keedran Franklin, in yellow, to brainstorm policy proposals to prevent other youth from being incarcerated. At the top of the list was mentoring and jobs. Just under that was a call to eliminate suspensions and expulsions and replace with fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

Hidden behind what Memphis education officials have said is good news when it comes to student discipline is a disturbing trend: As short-term suspensions have decreased, expulsions have increased.

Graphic by Samuel Park

Last year, Shelby County Schools handed down nearly 2,500 expulsions, according to district data. That’s about 300 more than in the 2015-16 school year — when the district already had one of the highest expulsion rates in the nation, according to federal data.

In one extreme example, a single high school issued one expulsion for every six students.

On average, expelled students were barred from school for 106 days, or more than half of the school year.

And while Tennessee law and district policies mandate expulsions for some offenses, 83 percent of the expulsions came at school leaders’ discretion. A third were for violations of relatively minor rules.

The expulsion data reveals mixed results for the district’s push to reduce discipline methods that keep students out of school. Shelby County Schools handed out 4,700 fewer suspensions last year than in the 2015-16 school year. Yet the rise in expulsions means that the total number of school days that students missed for discipline reasons actually increased.

Students spent about 14,200 more days in class because of the reduction in suspensions, based on the average three-day punishment. But the increase in expulsions resulted in close to 33,700 more missed school days.

The district’s black boys bore the brunt of the trend. They make up 38 percent of the district’s more than 100,000 students, but accounted for 67 percent of expulsions last year.

The data is raising questions among supporters of Shelby County’s discipline push, which launched as the federal education department pressed districts to limit suspensions and expulsions and reduce racial disparities among students who are punished.

“What we don’t want is for practices that we’re trying to replace to be replaced with practices that don’t support students,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the district’s discipline efforts. “If we hide at all what are the real struggles, then we don’t identify the resources that are needed.”

(Tennessee defines suspensions as exclusions from school lasting less than 10 days; suspensions longer than 10 days are called expulsions. The district provided the length of expulsions only for students without disabilities, about 92 percent of expelled students.)

Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

District officials emphasized the reduction in suspensions and blamed the high expulsion numbers on charter schools and the state’s “zero-tolerance” law that requires expulsions for certain offenses. “Charters most often do not use in-school suspensions and progressive discipline, so their expulsions increase our numbers,” said a spokesperson, Natalia Powers.

But the district’s own data showed that charter schools, which have also worked to reduce suspensions, collectively reported 64 expulsions last year, 3 percent of the district’s total. And data the district provided showed that at most, only a quarter of expulsions were mandated by law.

District officials have also said they are confident that the district’s nine alternative schools for expelled students are serving those students well. One of those schools, G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, recently received state recognition for its work with expelled students and students who are transitioning out of incarceration. Students there meet with behavior specialists, mental health clinicians, and social workers, while families get support as well. District officials said as many as 40 percent of students choose to stay at Carver after their expulsion is over.

“They’re children and they sometimes make poor choices,” said Valerie Matthews, the district’s alternative schools director, at a recent conference for young men who attend alternative schools. “We keep them on track academically, we teach them how to modify their behavior, we work with them, we’re patient with them, we love on them, and it works.”

But students who are expelled are not required to enroll in alternative schools — something that the district’s school board has asked state legislators to change.

Matthews acknowledged that not all students who are expelled wind up in alternative schools. She said students who are excluded from school for less than a month frequently do not make the switch, and other students don’t attend because they cannot get to the alternative schools. The district provides bus passes, but the city’s struggling bus system can make using them challenging.

That reality means there are students who aren’t being educated because of their misbehavior — and, students say, could make them more likely to run into trouble in the future.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
John Chatman is a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school in Memphis that recently received recognition from the state for its services for expelled students and those returning to school after incarceration.

“When they stay out of school, it’s not really a lesson learned, because the only thing they do is go home and chill, or go out and do the same stuff they been doing,” said John Chatman, a Carver Academy senior who was expelled from both East High School and Northeast Prep, another alternative school. “It takes away from education. It also puts them back into an environment that they were trying to escape from.”

Indeed, removing or excluding students from class does not address misbehavior, said Zoe Savitsky, an attorney who oversees education litigation and policy reform for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Would you ever say to a 6-year-old, ‘Get out of my classroom until you learn to read?’” she said. “You actually have to teach behavior skills you want them to have. And exclusionary discipline just ignores that reality.”

Principals in Memphis schools have a great deal of discretion in handing out discipline. Just 17 percent of expulsions in Shelby County Schools last year were required under Tennessee’s “zero tolerance” rules, which mandate expulsions for serious assaults on school employees; drug use or possession, and having a firearm at school.

Half of the expulsions were for what the district calls “other threats” and offenses that include fighting and assaults that do not result in serious injury.

And a full third of the expulsions were for what the district calls “rules violations” that could include skipping class or being out of uniform.

The district did not offer more detail about which rules being broken resulted in last year’s expulsions. But many of the behaviors that fall into that category are exactly the kinds of offenses that the district has targeted in its push to reduce suspensions.

2018 Youth Action Networking event

  • What: Students in BRIDGES’ advocacy program for formerly incarcerated youth will present their ideas on how to reduce both suspensions and expulsions to several district and county leaders. The event is sponsored by Bridge Builders USA, the University of Memphis Law Diversity & Inclusion Office, and Project MI.
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
  • Where: BRIDGES, 477 N. 5th Street, Memphis, TN 38105

As part of that push, the district has hired more staff to dig into why students misbehave, crafted individual plans to help students improve, and rolled out alternative consequences before barring students from school. Now, 20 “behavior specialists” each work with about 10 schools to reduce suspensions, meaning that schools that don’t hire their own get only a little bit of support in working with students who misbehave.

“It kind of escalates, and [teachers] have to end up making an office referral for something that probably could have been redirected if they had the right tools,” Hargrave said. “If every school had someone who was an expert in trauma-informed practices or dealing with difficult behaviors along with the general staff, that would be ideal.”

Students suspended or expelled from school are more likely to have lower test scores, drop out of school, or become involved in crime than other students, links that led to the national push to reduce exclusionary discipline.

Advocates say that shift is especially necessary in Memphis, which has the highest rate in the nation of young adults who are not in school or working. Earlier this year, Orrin’s organization invited national expert Cami Anderson to train Memphis school leaders to prevent expulsions and suspensions and use alternative ways to discipline students.

Anderson previously was the superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school district and led New York City’s system of alternative schools for students with behavior issues. She said she’s not surprised expulsions went up while Shelby County Schools focused on reducing suspensions.

“If you only look at one, without intending, you can incentivize schools to take actions that have worse outcomes for kids,” Anderson said. “That’s true across the country.”