exceptions to the rule

The highs and lows of Colorado education are spotlighted in ‘The Outliers’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file
Students at Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary collaborate on a literacy lesson.

The Boulder Valley School District serves a largely affluent population with highly educated parents. In Sterling on the Eastern Plains, fewer than 1 in 6 adults has a bachelor’s degree. But both the Boulder district and the Valley Re-1 district serving Sterling send a large portion of their graduates to college, and few of them need remediation classes when they get there.

Those are just two of the findings in a new report from the Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado that examines both exemplary and struggling districts. A Plus focuses on data analysis to drive public support for policy changes. This is the second year that A Plus has released “The Outliers,” which is intended to help educators find models to emulate.

The report notes success stories like DSST: Stapleton High School, part of the Denver-based charter network, which posted the state’s highest average SAT scores for white students, black students and students from low-income families. Its Hispanic students also posted SAT scores that were among the highest in the state.

Among the report’s nuanced findings, the tiny Sheridan district south of Denver sends relatively few students to college, with many later needing remediation. But the district has made big strides in the graduation rate of homeless students, who make up 25 percent of its students. In 2016, 64 percent of its homeless students graduated, compared with 53 percent for the state and 42 percent in Denver.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

The numbers only tell so much.

The report shows schools where students from low-income families — as measured by free- and reduced-price lunch rates — do well on elementary math tests or middle school language arts, and where Hispanic students graduate at high rates or have good SAT scores. However, it doesn’t explain just how those schools succeed.

CEO Van Schoales said A Plus Colorado isn’t able to visit all districts and schools to research what they’re doing right, but he hopes the report can still be a resource for principals and superintendents.

“Folks need to spend the time to get to understand the places where most kids are getting to standards or graduating or showing growth,” he said. “There can be an echo chamber in education around the cool places or what’s hot. This report is the data. There are a lot of places doing great work.”

Small districts are just as capable of serving at-risk students as large ones.

The first year of “The Outliers” only looked at the 76 districts serving at least 1,000 students. This year, the report looks at roughly 120 districts with publicly available data. Small districts are more likely to be outliers in both good and bad ways. With fewer students overall, it doesn’t take many students to significantly boost or drag down achievement percentages.

The researchers found small school districts serving low-income and diverse student populations and getting good outcomes.

“A lot of school districts think that the bigger you are, the more capacity you have and the more good you can do, and our report shows that that is not necessarily true,” Schoales said. “You can find school districts doing well by low-income kids all over Colorado and ones that are not.”

Online schools need a lot more scrutiny.

The report found that students in online schools do worse even than students in low-performing brick-and-mortar schools, and that when districts open online schools, it pulls down districtwide performance.

The Byers district east of Denver, where 82 percent of students attend online schools, and Colorado Digital BOCES, a cooperative collection of online schools, showed some of the lowest academic growth in the state, the report found.

“In theory, it sounds great,” but most online schools are not working for their students, Schoales said.

This is not a new concern. A 2016 investigation by Education Week raised serious questions about the operation of GOAL Academy online schools. But the sector continues to expand, with A Plus calling it “one of the fastest growing segments within the Colorado educational ecosystem.”

Colorado suppresses so much student data that it’s hard to get a complete picture.

Colorado has strict data privacy rules that lead to the suppression of student achievement information from small batches and sometimes even larger groups of students. As a result, A Plus Colorado said it doesn’t know whether the 300 black students in the Boulder Valley School District or the 366 students in Manitou Springs who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch are meeting grade-level expectations.

That’s because the state redacts scores whenever fewer than four students score at a particular proficiency level, and then shields additional scores from other groups and even other schools to further obscure the data.

A Plus says this 3-year-old policy makes it impossible to discern how certain groups of students are performing.

Complete test data is available to district officials, but Schoales said that’s not good enough. If they and the public can’t compare among school districts, they don’t know how much better they could be doing.

“The public and policy makers need to know what’s working and where we can learn from,” Schoales said.

Read the rest of the report, with lots of district- and school-level information, here:

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.