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Denver math tutors spark initial gains, long-term growth less secure

On a whiteboard at Castro Elementary School in southwest Denver, Lauren Paley drew a pentagon and turned to her charges.

“Does every pentagon have five angles?” she asked.

“Yes,” Miguel, one of two students in her classroom, responded. But his answer didn’t pacify his teacher.

“Can you prove it?” she asked. So Miguel went to the board and pointed to the pentagon’s five angles, saying that’s the definition of the shape.

Paley is one of several full-time math tutors working at the school as part of the Denver Math Fellows, an intensive math tutoring program which expanded to 39 schools this year.

School officials are touting the success of the program at Castro and other participating school but the data from schools where it has been implemented suggests a more mixed picture.

The program, which launched in seven northeast Denver schools two years ago as part of turnaround efforts, aims to help improve the schools’ low math scores. Students receive hands-on math instruction in small groups of two to four kids. The tutoring time is built into the school day and supplements math instruction the students are already receiving.

The expansion to 39 schools this school year was an initiative funded under the 2012 mill levy, a tax measure which funded a number of enrichment programs throughout the district.

“It’s a similar model to (Teach for America),” said David Nachtweih, a spokesperson for Denver Public Schools. He said it is modeled on the idea of a service year, with the goal of preparing and encouraging college graduates with an interest in education to go into teaching.

Tutors hold a bachelor’s degree and pass a math assessment in order to be considered. Most, said Nachtweih, aim to go into teaching after completing the program.

The district is not releasing school-level data for any participating school other than Castro, which a district spokesperson said showed exceptionally strong growth. According to interim internal testing data released Tuesday, the program has made a big impact at least at Castro, where the percentage of students in the tutoring program scoring proficient or better has more than doubled. The number of students scoring in the lowest tier, “below basic,” fell 40 percent.

The district calculated the interim data by calculating how students did on a test in October compared to how they did at the start of the year. Across all 39 schools, the number of students passing the test by the second assessment almost doubled, to 17 percent. The number of students who scored at the lowest level decreased by nearly a fifth. The tests the district is using correlate relatively closely to end-of the-year TCAP scores.

If the seven pilot schools indicate anything about this program’s results, it’s that progress may not be steady. Schools that saw major gains in the first year of the program did not necessarily see them continue.

In the first year of tutoring, the schools all met the district’s goal for growth, a score of 60 or better. In fact, the schools received an average growth score of 73, which is 23 percentile points above the state average.

The district raised its expectations for the second year, to a score of 65, and added a school, DCIS at Ford. But schools’ growth flattened and even dropped in the second year. Only three schools met the new goal and two schools, including DCIS at Ford, failed to meet either the original goal or the new goal.

“The biggest factor in that change is adding grades,” said Antwan Wilson, who leads the Office of Post-Secondary Readiness for Denver Public Schools. His office oversees the math tutoring program. “Anytime you’re dealing with growth, adding kids can change that.” He would not comment on other factors at play.

Interim testing is not available for the northeast schools so it is impossible to know whether those trends have continued.

Several of the schools are still in the process of offering their full complement of grade levels. For example, in the first year of tutoring, Collegiate Preparatory Academy only offered ninth grade. In the second year, they added tenth grade and this year, they added an eleventh grade.

The high schools participating in the program, Collegiate Prep, DCIS at Montbello, High Tech Early College and Noel Community Arts School, saw drops in proficiency as high as 11 percent.

Wilson said that is due to a changing student cohort, unrelated to the effects of the tutoring program. He pointed to growth numbers as indicators of its success.

The district has also moved tutoring to eighth instead of ninth grade, in order to target students earlier and lower the number of students who enter high school already behind.

The growth at one school, DCIS at Montbello Middle School, not only dropped but fell below the state average in math during its second year. The school received a growth score of 44, which represents a 17 percentile point drop from the first year.

Wilson said that the district hired a new principal for the school at the end of last year and that the sixth grade math teacher left as well. He would not comment on whether those staff changes were tied in anyway to the school’s performance.

Participating schools include elementary, middle and high throughout the district, with tutoring for fourth, sixth and ninth graders. Look here for a full list of the participating schools.

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