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.”

Special education reorganization

Only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver met expectations on state tests

Just 2 percent of black students with disabilities in Denver scored at grade-level or higher on state literacy and math tests last year. In raw numbers, that’s just 33 of the 1,641 black students with disabilities in the school district, according to Denver Public Schools data.

The percentage is similar for Latino students with disabilities: only 2.6 percent met expectations on the tests. Meanwhile, nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities did.

Denver school officials recently revealed those shockingly low numbers and stark racial disparities as further justification for a previously proposed reorganization of the department that oversees special education. The reorganization would shrink the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities, and would increase the number of school psychologists and social workers.

The theory is that providing more robust mental health services in schools will allow the central office staff members who remain to shift their focus from managing behavior crises to improving academic instruction. Because of their expertise, those staff members were often tapped to help teachers deal with challenging behavior from all students, not just those with disabilities, said Eldridge Greer, who oversees special education for Denver Public Schools.

District officials also hope that increasing mental health support will reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined. District data show black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students, while Latino students are three times as likely.

“The biases that are in place in our society unfairly target African-American and Latino children to be controlled as a response to trauma, or as a response to readiness-to-learn (issues), instead of being provided more educational support,” Greer said.

Parents of students with disabilities have pushed back against the district’s plan to cut staff dedicated to special education. Advocates have, too.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said that while the district should be embarrassed by how poorly it’s serving students of color, she’s not sure the proposed reorganization will help.

She and others worry the district is siphoning money from special education to pay for services that will benefit all students – and that in the end, those with disabilities will lose out.

“If the district wants to have a full-time social worker and psychologist in every school, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bisceglia said. “What I have a problem with is the plan doesn’t suggest how instruction is going to look different (for students with disabilities) and how the curriculum is going to be different in terms of learning to read and do math.”

Greer said that in large part, the curriculum and strategies the district has in place are the right ones. What’s lacking, he said, is training for special education teachers, especially those who are new to the profession. Having a cadre of central office staff focused solely on academics will help, he said.

The reorganization, as detailed at a recent school board meeting, calls for cutting 45 districtwide experts who help principals serve students with disabilities – and who Greer said spent a lot of time managing behavior crises. In their place, the district would hire 15 academic specialists, eight more behavior specialists (the district already has seven), and four supervisors.

The overhaul would also ensure that all elementary schools have at least one full-time social worker or psychologist. Schools would also get money to put in place new discipline practices. The school board last year revised its discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through third grade.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get $50,000 to spend on a mental health worker, teacher, or teacher’s aide.

School principals invited to discuss the reorganization with the school board said they welcomed being able to hire more social workers and psychologists. But they said they are unsure about the rest of the plan.

One principal said he relied heavily on the expert assigned to help his school serve students with disabilities. Another expressed concern about losing capable staff.

“How do we retain some of that talent so we don’t end up with a brain drain and lose all these people that have all this knowledge and expertise?” said Gilberto Muñoz, the principal at Swansea Elementary School in north Denver.

When district officials first presented the plan earlier this year, they framed it as a way to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. Just 8 percent of Denver fourth-graders with disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test last year, compared with 44 percent of fourth-graders without disabilities.

But Greer said that when they dug into the data, they discovered the racial disparities.

“We knew there were disparities, but to see disparities as profound as the ones I shared with the board, it was important to elevate that,” he said.

Parent Sarah Young said it was courageous of the district to share such shocking data. But she said she thinks their plan to fix the disparities is lacking – and she disagrees with calling it a reorganization.

Young, who has a daughter with a learning disability, visual impairment, and epilepsy, said Denver Public Schools should call the plan what it is: cuts to special education.

“We understand you’re trying to handle behavior,” Young said, referring to the district. “But these are all vulnerable student populations, and we can’t pit them against each other. We can’t be robbing one to try to put a Band-Aid on another.”

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she said. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

Still others participate because they live in “enrollment zones,” which are essentially big school boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in enrollment zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. Many families who live in zones use the choice process to increase the chances they’ll get into their preferred school.

The district added three more enrollment zones this year, bringing the total number to 14 citywide.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.