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

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.