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’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.