Nation's Report Card

Large achievement gaps in Denver highlighted by new national test data

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

Compared to other large, urban school districts, Denver has among the biggest achievement gaps in the country between white and Hispanic students in reading and math.

That’s according to data released Monday from the tests known as “the nation’s report card.” The tests are given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in each state. Scores from 27 urban districts, including Denver Public Schools, are reported separately. This is the first year Denver’s scores have been broken out that way.

Denver scored roughly in the middle of the pack of the 27 districts, with its students posting slightly higher than average scores in reading and slightly lower than average scores in math. English language learners in Denver did particularly well on the tests.

However, the results also highlight a well-known problem: Most of Denver’s achievement gaps between more privileged and less privileged students were bigger than average. In some cases, the differences were large enough to be statistically significant.

Those included the gaps between white and Hispanic students. More than half of Denver students are Hispanic. About a quarter are white. Results show that white students in Denver did particularly well on the tests, outscoring white students in the state and the nation.

That trend mirrors Denver’s results on state standardized tests, and district officials say it’s one reason why the achievement gap between white students and students of color is so large.

Denver also had larger than average gaps between students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, and those who don’t in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math. Superintendent Tom Boasberg said these latest scores confirm that Denver Public Schools needs to continue to focus on closing its gaps.

“That’s our number-one priority,” he said.

The 27 urban districts are part of what’s known as the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, which began in 2002 with six districts and has steadily grown. Denver officials wanted to join the group to be able to judge how Denver students score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests compared to students in other urban districts.

In math, 28 percent of Denver fourth-graders and 26 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better. In reading, 29 percent of both fourth- and eighth-graders scored proficient or better.

Being part of the group also allows Denver to compare its scores to Colorado statewide scores. Denver students scored lower than Colorado students in both grades and both subjects, and most of Denver’s achievement gaps were bigger than Colorado’s achievement gaps.

But much like the trend with white students, English language learners in Denver outscored English language learners statewide in reading and math. They also outscored English language learners nationwide in reading. Denver Public Schools has for years been under a court order to improve instruction for students whose first language is not English.

Boasberg characterized the scores of Denver’s English language learners as a bright spot. A decade ago, they were underperforming their peers in Colorado and nationwide, he said. The progress, he said, is “a credit to the work that our teachers are doing.”

Overall, Boasberg said district officials were expecting Denver students to score higher on the NAEP tests, given their performance on state standardized tests. Colorado has been part of a testing consortium called PARCC along with a dwindling number of other states. Being part of a consortium allowed Colorado to compare its results with the other states.

Four of the 27 urban districts were also part of the PARCC consortium. As such, Denver officials were able to compare both PARCC and NAEP scores with those four districts. The comparisons show that Denver students did better on PARCC than students in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., but more on par with them on NAEP.

“That was surprising,” Boasberg said. “Based on how our students did on PARCC, we were surprised when we saw performance that was less strong on NAEP.”

He said he doesn’t know why, but the district is digging into possible reasons.

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

Are Children Learning

Memphis schools in most need of growth see gains, but vast majority of students still not on grade level

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Melody Smith discusses how students at A.B. Hill Elementary grew significantly in test scores.

Three years after one elementary school joined Shelby County Schools’ flagship school improvement program, Principal Melody Smith says growth is proof their efforts are working.

“We came together we battled, we cried, we fought tooth and nail, but in the end we kept our students in the center,” Smith told teachers as they reviewed the results a week before school began.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teachers at A.B. Hill Elementary discuss what makes an ideal school.

A.B. Hill Elementary School, which is part of the Innovation Zone, went from less than 5 percent of students reading on grade level last year to 15 percent in state test scores released Thursday. That jump earned the South Memphis school the state’s highest ranking in growth, but the scores also mean about 85 percent of students still don’t meet state requirements.

The iZone’s two dozen schools have been heralded for how much students have grown since 2012, especially when compared to the state-run Achievement School District, which heavily relies on private charter organizations to boost test scores, and scored the lowest in student growth.

But the challenge is far from over, and school leaders are looking for ways to improve faster.

State leaders generally look at three years of data before determining if academic strategies are working. And in the past three years, the state’s switch to online testing has been tumultuous, which has caused some district leaders and state lawmakers to question the results. But on national tests, Tennessee was held up as a model for student growth compared to surrounding states in a recent Stanford University study — even while the state is still in the bottom half of test scores nationwide.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

Only three schools in the iZone — Westhaven Elementary, Cherokee Elementary, and Ford Road Elementary — have more than 20 percent of students reading on grade level. By comparison, 16 schools surpassed that in science, five in math, and four in social studies.

“There was a lot of movement in our elementary schools,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for schools performing poorly on state tests. But “we’re going to need a laser light focus on our high schools and our middle schools.”

The district created the iZone to boost student achievement in schools performing the worst in the state, all of which are in impoverished neighborhoods. The state Legislature allowed principals to have much more autonomy on which certified teachers they could hire, pumped about $600,000 per school for teacher pay incentives, and added more resources to combat the effects of poverty in the classroom, such as clothes and food closets.

Now, entering its seventh year, the iZone is still outshining the state-run district, and students are still showing more growth compared to their peers across the state who also performed poorly last year. Nine schools in the iZone got the state’s highest ranking for growth, compared to just five last year when the state switched to a new test. (Scroll to the bottom of this story to compare test scores and growth for iZone schools.)

Of the 23 schools in the iZone last year, seven of them were high schools. None of the high schools had more than a third of students on grade level or above in any subject. Four of them — Raleigh Egypt, Melrose, Mitchell, and Hamilton — saw significant growth in at least one subject. Last year was Raleigh Egypt’s first year in the iZone under Shari Meeks, who previously was principal at Oakhaven Middle School.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Clothes closet at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis.

Burt said “the first big thing” that will be done to combat low reading scores in middle and high schools will be to strengthen curriculum. Adding curriculum for younger students played a part in boosting test scores that contributed to growth, leaders said.

Also, new reading specialists will teach a separate class for students who are the furthest behind on top of their normal English class. Before, teachers were responsible for catching up those students, or specialists would take them out of class to work on reading skills.

At the district level, Burt said science, social studies, math, and English advisors will be working more directly with teachers. And principal coaches will have more say in how and where those advisors concentrate their efforts.

Inside the school, Smith, the principal at A.B. Hill Elementary, said having teachers practice more difficult lessons in front of each other helped spur more ideas on how to make the curriculum work for their students.

Teachers said collaboration with others was key to figuring out the best way to improve test scores there. It was common for teachers to invite each other to sit in on lessons and give feedback.

“We would debrief with each other all the time,” said Brenda Pollard, who taught fourth-grade English and social studies. Now she says the foundation has been laid for higher achievement.

“It can be done,” she said. “We’re living proof it can be done.”

Below is a table of how iZone schools fared on state tests. Fields labeled “4.9” were hidden in state data, but are likely below 5 percent.

tar heel trivia

New education research? A good chance it’s from North Carolina.

PHOTO: Creative Commons/Boston Public Library

Barbeque. Basketball rivalries. The Blue Ridge Mountains.

Education research?

It’s something else North Carolina is known for, at least among a subset of social scientists.

“North Carolina has really done something special,” says Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor and the editor of Education Finance and Policy, an academic journal.

“If you look over the last 20 years and focus on the highest quality work, it’s disproportionately work that comes from North Carolina data,” says Dan Goldhaber, an education professor at the University of Washington at Bothell.

North Carolina students aren’t more interesting or easier to find. But a disproportionate share of education research — and therefore, a disproportionate amount of what we know about how certain policies work — comes out of the Tar Heel State.

That’s because North Carolina has kept track of things like student test scores, teacher demographics, and school accountability data since the ‘90s, and also made that information more accessible to researchers than anywhere else.

It works well for those looking for data. But it also underscores a troubling reality: We know much less about how policies play out in places where data is hard to access — and in some cases, may be kept under lock and key for political reasons. That leaves the public to take the best lessons it can from a state that’s home to just 3 percent of the country’s public school students.

“The problem is that what you really want to do is look at lots of places,” said Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “You want to be able to leverage the natural experiments and understand the variation in a way that’s really hard to do in one place.”

Of course, researchers in many cases do work productively with local officials to obtain data. And although it appears that North Carolina is the most commonly studied state in education policy, it is by no means the subject of the majority of academic papers. For instance, seven studies published in Education Finance and Policy over the last two years were focused on North Carolina — more than any other state or district, though over 30 others focused on K-12 schooling in the U.S used national data or data from elsewhere.

North Carolina’s popularity is tied to the fact that it is one of the few states where researchers can get student data (that has been anonymized) from a third party, in this case a research center established in 2000 that operates out of Duke University. In most states, the state education department or other state agency controls that information. Many states and districts lack the resources, streamlined systems, or staff capacity that North Carolina’s center has to meet researchers’ requests.

That center also separates policymakers and the keepers of the data — which may be crucial for ensuring information is made available.

“Not every place wants to open up their data and say, ‘Study what you want,’” said Schwartz. “The risk is that a researcher investigates something or casts it in a way that’s not positive for the school district.”

Goldhaber echoed this. “If you’re talking to somebody who’s involved with politics … they’re going to see everything through a political lens. And that when it comes to evaluating programs and policies, people often don’t see much upside,” he said.

In North Carolina, local researchers realized the importance of tracking students and schools over time, according to Duke’s Clara Muschkin, the faculty director of the data center.

When Goldhaber was studying schools there in the 1990s, he recalled, “There was a real belief that people ought to study these issues, and that was kind of pervasive under Gov. Jim Hunt.”

That extended to research that Hunt’s administration might not like. For instance, Goldhaber was interested in studying whether teachers who attained National Board certification were more effective in the classroom. Hunt was the founding board chair of the organization that awarded those certifications, and Goldhaber’s research had previously shown that certification types didn’t make much difference. But that didn’t stop the administration from providing that data to Goldhaber, who ultimately found North Carolina’s board certified teachers were particularly effective.

It’s impossible to say how often political concerns play a role in keeping data from researchers. When politics is involved, researchers themselves may not know, and if they do, they may not want to publicize it in hopes of eventually working out an agreement. (This reporter has heard frequent complaints about politics getting in the way of data access — but in most cases those are made off the record.)

A more subtle method of interference is when officials decide not to collect data in the first place that researchers might use to reach unflattering conclusions. California, Goldhaber said, is a particular culprit.

The largest state in the country has weakened, or declined to improve, its data systems since 2010, and the information that exists is not readily available to researchers. Governor Jerry Brown has argued that educational data is of little use to teachers and schools, and feeds into a test-focused mentality of schooling.

“You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” wrote Brown in a critique of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which encouraged more data collection. “I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”

Goldhaber has found it difficult to study the state’s education policies.

“There is just basic data that we could not get out of California,” he said, referring to a study he and colleagues are undertaking there.

Some places are becoming more cognizant of concerns about a lack of quality research about their schools. In Washington, D.C., the city council is considering funding an education research group and may make its data widely available to researchers. In California, some advocates and policymakers have pushed for improving its data systems, an idea the state’s likely next governor has backed.

In the meantime, those interested in key education questions — in California, DC, and elsewhere — can always look to North Carolina for answers. That’s largely a good thing, says Goldhaber.

“The fact that we are learning things in North Carolina is tremendously useful for informing policy and practice in other states,” he said.