First Person

TCAP reading results reveal anomalies

Nearly three-fourths of Colorado third-graders are reading at grade level, a slight increase that matches the highest proficiency mark achieved in the past ten years, according to results released Wednesday.

A student at work in Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary, where Wednesday

Results of the first administration of the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, which is replacing the Colorado Student Assessment Program as the state shifts to new academic standards, show 73.9 percent of third-graders scored proficient or advanced.

Proficiency rates have hovered between 70 and 74 percent since at least 2003.

That leaves 25 percent of the state’s third-graders – more than 16,000 mostly 9-year-olds – struggling to master basic literacy skills.

More boys than girls need literacy help as third-grade tests provide the first look at a reading gender gap that persists through high school. A seven-point gap separates girls from boys on the 2012 third-grade exam; the most recent tenth-grade exams revealed a 13-point divide.

Gaps are similarly revealed by income and ethnicity on the third-grade reading tests, with 26 points separating students eligible for federal lunch aid and their more affluent peers. And 25-point gaps divide Hispanic and black students from their white classmates.

Those gaps have been cited in recent legislative debates about a literacy bill but the bill is not linked to statewide exams. Instead, the bill – approved Wednesday by state lawmakers – calls for existing early childhood literacy tests to assess whether third-graders meet a “significant reading deficiency” standard to be set by the State Board.

Highs and lows among schools

Some familiar school names show up at both ends of the spectrum in gains and declines on the TCAP results.

Center’s Haskin Elementary, recently profiled by EdNews, saw its scores rise 35 percentage points in a single year, from 41 percent of students achieving reading proficiency to 76 percent.

Haskin Elementary Principal Kathy Kulp works after school with students as part of an intense literacy focus in the Center School District.

The 310-student school in the rural San Luis Valley is wrapping up its second year of a three-year, $1.6 million federal School Improvement Grant, awarded to the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Last year’s scores also saw a big jump, from 28 percent proficiency to 41 percent.

Center Superintendent George Welsh, a key player in the recent Lobato school funding lawsuit, said the results show more money spent well can make a difference.

“I think the results we are achieving are a real life indication that a significant infusion of dollars, spent wisely in targeted areas, can produce the kinds of results the state has striven for through the education system it has designed,” he said.

“Without the training and resource opportunities that were afforded to us through our turnaround grant, we would probably still be where we were in 2010 when only 28 percent of our third-graders could read at grade level.”

Part of Center’s federal funding went to Lindamood-Bell, a for-profit company focused on intensive literacy training, including implementing summer and after-school academies for struggling readers. The company moved a trainer into Center for 18 months.

At the other end of the spectrum, Denver’s Beach Court Elementary saw its third-grade scores drop by more than 40 percentage points on both the English and Spanish-language reading exams over the past two years.

“The district regularly reviews all test scores for any signs of unusual patterns and takes the necessary follow-up action.”
— Mike Vaughn, DPS

Beach Court, a high-poverty neighborhood school in Northwest Denver, has been publicly lauded over the years for its high performance.

This year’s, 40 percent of the school’s third-graders scored proficient or advanced on the English exam, down from 78 percent last year and 85 percent the year before. On the Spanish version, the proficiency rate was 48 percent, down from 73 percent in 2011 and 92 percent in 2010.

Beach Court’s veteran principal, Frank Roti, did not return a call seeking comment.

“The district regularly reviews all test scores for any signs of unusual patterns and takes the necessary follow-up action,” DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn said.

Asked if the district sent monitors to Beach Court during TCAP testing this year, Vaughn responded that monitors were in “a couple dozen schools” to ensure “proper testing procedures” were followed.

He said he did not know if Beach Court was among them and declined additional comment.

Results of school reform efforts

In terms of growth, Center’s Haskin led all 14 of Colorado’s SIG elementary schools – meaning they’re the recipients of federal grants after having been deemed among the lowest-performing in the U.S.

But Westminster Elementary in the Adams 50 Westminster school district wasn’t far behind, with a 34-point gain over last year.

Five other SIG schools also posted double-digit gains in 2012; only one SIG school, Mapleton’s Meadow Community School, saw a decline.

Sheridan’s Fort Logan Elementary, another SIG school recently profiled by EdNews, continued its gradual but steady increase. Its reading proficiency rate grew to 52 percent, up 7 points in the past two years.

Nathaniel Stuart, a student at Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary, focuses on literacy.

Denver Public Schools touted gains at several schools undergoing major reforms, including two receiving federal SIG grants.

At West Denver’s Greenlee Elementary, part of a contentious 2009 reform proposal, third-graders posted a 21-point gain over last year. Fifty-five percent of third-graders were reading at grade level on this year’s exams.

Greenlee’s principal was replaced in fall 2010 when a new literacy program was adopted. The school also was restructured, shifting from a K-8 to an elementary school.

In Far Northeast Denver, two elementary schools that were part of another controversial reform plan approved in 2011, also saw gains.

Both Green Valley and McGlone elementaries saw 17-point increases in third-grade reading proficiency over last year.  Reform efforts at those schools included the requirement that teachers reapply for their jobs this past fall.

Another Denver school reform effort, the teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy, also saw strong gains. MSLA third-graders nearly doubled their reading proficiency, from 24 percent to 52 percent.

School district ups and downs

DPS continued to lead the state’s largest districts in reading proficiency growth, with 59 percent of third-graders performing at grade level.

That’s the highest result achieved by the district since state testing began, according to a press release.

Results from the state’s ten largest districts ranged from a 3-point bump in Denver to a 2-point drop in Fort Collins.

Rankings for the big ten districts align closely, though not completely, with poverty rates – Boulder and Douglas County, with poverty below 20 percent, produced the highest scores. Denver and Aurora, with poverty rates topping 65 percent, produced the lowest scores.

Among all metro-area districts, Adams 50 Westminster had the biggest single-year gain.

The district, which has eliminated traditional grade levels and advances students based on proficiency, saw its third-grade reading scores increase six points, from 41 percent proficiency to 47 percent.

Littleton Public Schools produced the highest results of all metro-area districts, with an 88 percent proficiency rate. Its growth also continues, improving six points since 2010.

Trends evident in the TCAP results: Fewer students taking Spanish-language exams and small districts reporting no public results because they have few test-takers.

Another district of interest, the state Charter School Institute, saw its overall third-grade proficiency rate decline eight points, from 77 percent to 69 percent.

Two other trends are evident in the TCAP results, with fewer students taking Spanish-language exams and small districts reporting no public results because they have few test-takers.

Colorado state exams are available in Spanish only in grades 3 and 4. The number of third-graders taking the Spanish version of the reading tests has declined from 1,500 in 2008 to 1,200 in 2012.

And the number of Colorado school districts with no public test scores – meaning they have fewer than 16 third-graders taking the state exams – continues its gradual climb. The state doesn’t report scores for fewer numbers because of privacy concerns.

In 2011 and 2012, 48 of the state’s 182 districts reported fewer than 16 young test-takers. This year, the Agate school district reported a single third-grader. In 2010, 44 districts had no public third-grade scores.

Third-grade results for Colorado’s federally-funded SIG schools

Performance of the state’s ten largest school districts

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.