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Denver, Dougco tops in large-district growth

Colorado test scores released Tuesday offer a more complicated and nuanced look at what constitutes high performance.
Colorado test scores released Tuesday offer a more complicated and nuanced look at what constitutes high performance.

Douglas County is used to top rankings when it comes to student achievement on Colorado’s annual state exams. Denver, perhaps not so much.

But the state’s growth model shows that the neighboring districts are doing equally well at promoting academic gains with their disparate student populations.

An Education News Colorado analysis of growth data for the ten largest school districts in the state show Douglas County and Denver tied for first, just ahead of Cherry Creek.

Make no mistake, far more students in Douglas County are reading, writing and performing math at grade level than in Denver Public Schools. In reading, for example, half of DPS students were reading at grade level this past spring compared to 81 percent in Douglas County.

There’s little doubt that students enter the districts with different degrees of preparation. Denver has one of the state’s highest poverty rates at 72 percent. In Douglas County, fewer than one in 10 students qualify for federal lunch assistance.

In the third grade, the first year the state’s tests are given, performance gaps are evident. Thirty-four percent of DPS third-graders were writing at grade level this past spring compared to 62 percent in Douglas County.

Click on graphs to enlarge – click again to reduce.

What the district’s similar growth ratings indicate is that teachers in both districts are equally adept at improving their students, no matter where they begin.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg celebrated Tuesday’s test results showing the district’s growth – but he also said it must accelerate if Denver’s students are to catch up with their peers statewide.

“We’ve been showing very steady and strong growth now for five years and it’s very nice to see that growth continuing and accelerating,” he said.

“At the same time, we want to grow faster and there are areas such as writing, there are areas such as schools where growth isn’t strong enough … We really need to focus on growing stronger this year.”

Pulling apart the growth data pinpoints one reason for that sense of urgency. Douglas County, where third-graders already are outperforming state averages on most tests, has a higher “catch up” rate than DPS.

“We can and will accelerate our growth,” Boasberg said. “There’s a lot of good work going on here.”

Boulder Valley Schools, another perenially high-achieving metro district, ranked fourth in growth while Aurora Public Schools, which faces poverty rates more similar to Denver’s, was fifth.

Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, posted growth outpacing the state median of 50 in reading and math. Its writing growth level lagged the state by a point – but it was still a point ahead of last year’s growth level.

Superintendent Cindy Stevenson pointed out students living in poverty in the sprawling district made gains in most grade levels in reading and in math. She also highlighted growth in middle and high school math.

Tuesday’s test score release was relatively low-key, as state education officials prepare to shift to a new test and a different rating system for schools and district. The emphasis was on the growth model, rather than simple status achievement.

Stevenson encouraged parents to focus on growth as well when they receive their individual students’ exam results: “Look at the growth, it’s what matters the most.”

In the Adams 12 Five Star district, the emphasis continued on making parents and the community aware that declines in test scores are largely attributable to a testing mishap.

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More than 6,000 exams taken by students of the Colorado Virtual Academy or COVA, an online charter school, were invalidated by state officials because students at different grade levels were tested in the same room.

Tossing out those exams resulted in zeros or “no scores,” dropping the Five Star district proficiency rates by several points in most grade levels and subjects. Only third-grade tests and science exams were not affected.

“The net result for us is that it drags down our district performance scores by between 5 and 6 percent when you look at our averages,” Superintendent Chris Gdowski said in meeting with reporters to explain the issue. “So it’s a pretty significant downward pull on our performance.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org.

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