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.”

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.