Achievement gaps narrow slightly, but statewide test scores stay mostly flat

Pencil on test paperColorado students’ performance on state standardized tests stalled for the second year in a row, according to new data released Wednesday.

And while some achievement gaps between the state’s white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts narrowed slightly, state officials estimated that the slow pace could mean three decades will pass before students in the demographic groups perform at similar levels.

“We can call this a glimmer of hope, but it’s a very faint glimmer,” State Board of Education chair Paul Lundeen said.

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s students are reading at grade level, essentially the same rate as last year. About 57 percent are proficient or above in math, an increase of about a percentage point from 2012. Exactly 55 percent of students tested are writing at grade level, also an increase of one point over last year.

The biggest statewide gains came on science tests, where scores rose 1.5 percentage points, with just over half of students achieving proficiency.

“Overall students are making gains. More students are showing growth,” testing director Joyce Zurkowski told the state board Wednesday morning. “But these gains are not sufficient if our students are to be college and career ready.”

State officials pointed out that since 2008, low-income students and those learning English have improved their performance on state exams at a faster rate than their more affluent and English-fluent peers, and black and Hispanic students have made more gains than white students. Between last year and this year, for example, the difference between white and Hispanic students’ scores in both reading and math narrowed by roughly one and a half percentage points.

However, test scores of black and Hispanic students still lag far behind those of their white peers.

“I hope this prompts a deep discussion of the gaps,” said board member Deb Scheffel. Among those questions, Scheffel said, should be whether providing extra funding to low-performing schools is having an impact.

But board member Angelika Schroeder pointed out that the state is just beginning to implement a broad slate of school-improvement efforts, including upgrades to early literacy programs and new content standards that are being introduced to classrooms this school year.

“I guess I’m not as pessimistic as everyone else,” Schroeder said.

Scores of Denver Public School students overall snuck upward in ranges from one percentage point on writing exams to three percentage points on math and science tests.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg lauded the sustained progress in scores, which have increased by double digits in all subjects since 2005. Schools in the Far Northeast neighborhood of Denver, where the district launched a concerted turnaround effort two years ago, have posted double-digit gains in proficiency at both the middle and high school level.

“Most strikingly, Denver Public Schools students for the second year in a row showed more growth than students in any of the biggest districts in the state,”  Boasberg said. “At the same time, we remain very concerned about our achievement gaps.”

Performance gaps between Hispanic and black students and their white peers in the district on reading tests, for example, have remained stagnant since 2011 with a a nine percentage point difference. And while 70 percent of the district’s more affluent students met the proficiency bar on math exams, just half of students on reduced-price lunch and just over a third of students who receive free lunch met that standard.

Those sustained gaps, along with low relative overall performance compared to other districts, fueled criticism from opponents of Boasberg’s reform efforts.

“The district will somehow find reasons to celebrate,” said DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan in a statement. “I can find no such thing.” Kaplan argued that progress remains too slow given the wide gaps in absolute performance between the district and the rest of the state. Overall, 54 percent of Denver students reached the proficiency bar in reading. In math, 46 percent of students in the district are proficient and 42 percent write on grade level.

Find your school and district’s TCAP scores as well as their growth rates in our searchable databases. And follow EdNews Colorado for more analysis and take-aways from the state scores soon.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede