'the outliers'

Which Colorado school districts are outshining the rest — and which are falling behind? New report seeks answers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
A parent mentor helps a student with a math problem at Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale in 2013.

A Denver charter school posted the highest average ACT scores for black students in the state last year. Multiracial students in the Roaring Fork school district showed more academic growth on state tests than their white peers. And the Platte Valley district in Weld County has over time achieved impressive improvements in the number of students at grade level.

Meanwhile, graduation rates are declining for all groups of students in El Paso County’s Falcon 49 district, and a district with several new online schools has seen its test scores fall.

Those are some of the findings from a new report by Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado. Called “The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts,” it examines how school districts across Colorado are serving different groups of students.

Here are six interesting findings from the report:

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a link in Denver’s biggest charter school chain, is the only high school in the state, out of nearly 500, where black students scored at least an average of 22 points on the ACT college entrance exam. The average score in 2016 was 23.2.

On a district level, the district with the highest average ACT score for black students was Poudre in Fort Collins. The district with the lowest average score for black students was Pueblo City 60.

The school where Latino students earned the highest average ACT scores last year was D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School in Jefferson County, with an average score of 27.4

Another Jeffco school, Evergreen High School, had the highest average ACT score — 25.9 — among students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Similar to smaller Platte Valley, the 3,200-student Fort Morgan district has shown dramatic improvements over the past four years in the percentage of students who are proficient on state elementary math tests and middle-school English tests. More than two-thirds of students in Fort Morgan are children of color and the same proportion qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, which serves more than 90,000 students and has similar demographics, also leaped from ranking in the 15th to 20th percentile statewide on state English and math tests in 2013 to the 43rd percentile in 2016, near the state average.

Among the districts that showed declines over that time period were Manitou Springs, Johnstown-Milliken in Weld County and Aspen, which ranked high in elementary math when compared to other districts in 2013 but fell 34 percentile points by 2016.

The mostly white, mostly non-low-income 2,500-student Steamboat Springs district saw a higher proportion of students meet grade-level standards on state tests last year than districts with similar demographics, such as Boulder Valley and Littleton.

On the whole, Colorado’s students of color and low-income students show slower academic growth on state tests year to year than their white, more affluent peers. But students in some districts buck that trend. One example? The 170 Latino students in the East Grand school district — which serves Winter Park, Granby and other communities — showed higher academic growth on state English tests last year than the district’s 1,000 white students.

The 3,000-student Byers school district, east of Aurora, showed some of biggest declines in student performance over the past four years when compared to the rest of the state. However, the report notes that Byers authorized several multi-district online schools in that time period, which “continues to beg the question of the value of these particular school options.”

While Colorado’s overall four-year high school graduation rate has improved from 2011 to 2015, some districts have made even faster progress. For instance, the 1,500-student Sheridan school district saw its graduation rate improve by 39 percentage points during that time period.

Other districts stand out for the graduation rates of certain groups of students. The 2015 graduation rate for black students in Cherry Creek, where 11 percent of students are black, was 84 percent, the fifth-highest graduation rate for black students in Colorado.

However, several districts still maintain low graduation rates. Aurora had among the lowest rates for black students, Latino students and English language learners in 2015. Englewood is at or close to the bottom for all three groups, as well: in 2015, just 25 percent of black students, 40 percent of Latino students and 41 percent of English language learners graduated.

The report did not seek to determine what factors, such as a curriculum or teaching staff, may be contributing to why the schools and districts were successful or not.

Read the report in its entirety below.

beyond high school

Report: Memphis students from poor families less likely to have access to advanced coursework

PHOTO: By Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images

While most high school students in Tennessee’s largest district have access to advanced courses to prepare them for college, most of those classes are concentrated in schools with more affluent families.

Of the 14 high schools in Shelby County Schools that offer more than 40 advanced classes, all but one have a lower percentage of students from poor families than the district.

Those schools educate slightly more than half of high school students in the Memphis district. In contrast, about a quarter of high school students are in schools with 20 or fewer advanced courses, according to a new district report.

District officials say those course offerings in the 2017-18 school year are closely correlated with the size of the school: The larger the student population, the more likely the school is to offer advanced courses. The concentration of schools with more affluent students was not examined in the report.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

The findings are scheduled to be presented at next week’s school board meeting as part of the district’s monthly check-in on various statistics on teaching and student learning.

Taking advanced classes in high school introduces students to college-level coursework and in many cases allows them to skip some college classes — saving students thousands of dollars. And because students from low-income families, who make up about 59 percent of Shelby County Schools, lag behind their more affluent peers in college enrollment, they are encouraged to take more advanced courses.

Advanced courses include programs such as such as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate, and honors courses.

Jessica Lotz, the district’s director of performance management who compiled the report, said this year’s numbers are better than last year. Since her last report on the topic, three schools now offer advanced courses for the first time.

Staffing is the biggest barrier to offering more advanced courses, she said. So, additional teacher trainings are planned for the summer.

And district plans are underway to increase the number of students taking those courses. The district is also pursuing federal funds to help students from low-income families pay for dual enrollment courses, and also encouraging area colleges to lower the number of students needed to take a class so that smaller schools can participate.

The number of students taking advanced courses is part of the state Department of Education measure of a being ready for college, or a “ready graduate,” under its new accountability plan.

Scroll down to the bottom of this story for a full chart on the number of advanced courses by high school.

Here are the 14 schools with 40 or more advanced courses each:

  • White Station High (143 advanced courses)
  • Central High (116)
  • Middle College High (98)
  • Germantown High (95)
  • Cordova High (79)
  • Overton High (75)
  • Ridgeway High (74)
  • Bolton High (56)
  • Southwind High (55)
  • Whitehaven High (52)
  • Hollis F. Price Middle College High (46)
  • Kingsbury High (45)
  • Memphis Virtual School (43)
  • East High (42)

Note: The number of courses offered refers to unique advanced courses that are available at a given school, not the total number of times/sections the same course is offered for different groups of students.

Four high schools did not offer any advanced courses: Legacy Leadership Academy, a charter school; The Excel Center, an adult learning school; Newcomer International Center, a new high school program for immigrant students; and Northwest Prep Academy, an alternative school.

Of the advanced courses, International Baccalaureate, a high-profile certification program for high school students worldwide, was the least common. Just three more affluent high schools — Ridgeway, Germantown, and Bolton — offered those courses, according to the district’s data.

Dual enrollment, another category of advanced courses, are taught in partnership with an area college and count toward a postsecondary degree. Though the share of Shelby County Schools students taking dual enrollment courses has increased from about 5 to 9 percent since 2014, the percentage slightly decreased this year compared to last school year.

Most of the high schools, offer a total of 183 dual enrollment courses. But only four of the 16 charter schools in the report offered those classes.

About half of high schools in the district offer a total of 194 Advanced Placement courses, which culminate in a test at the end of the year that can count toward college credit if students score well enough. Most of those classes are concentrated in seven more affluent schools.

Those schools are:

  • White Station High (39 AP courses)
  • Central High (20)
  • Cordova High (15)
  • Kingsbury High (13)
  • Overton High (13)
  • Whitehaven High (11)
  • Southwind High (10)

Honors courses, which count toward an advanced high school diploma but do not count for college credit, were the most common with just over 1,000 across the district. Only seven schools, which were either charter schools or alternative schools, did not offer any honors courses.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to increase the percentage of students prepared for college by 2025. Currently, about 90 percent of students who graduate from the district would be required to take remedial classes in college because of low ACT scores, according to state data. That’s usually a sign that their high school did not adequately prepare them for college classes.

A state report released last fall examining where students go after high school showed that 56 percent of Shelby County Schools’ graduating class of 2016 went on to enroll in a four-year college or university, community college, or technical college. That’s compared to 63 percent of students statewide.

One of the report’s recommendations to boost that number was to improve partnerships with universities and increase the number of advanced course offerings — a recommendation Lotz emphasized Tuesday.

Shelby County Schools partners with the following universities and colleges for dual enrollment courses: Bethel University, Christian Brothers University, LeMoyne Owen College, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, University of Memphis, and William Moore College of Technology (Moore Tech)

Below you can find the advanced course offerings at each district-run and charter school in Shelby County Schools. Below that you can view the district’s full report.

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)