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Sixth-graders at DSST: College View answer questions during class in 2014.

Sixth-graders at DSST: College View answer questions during class in 2014.

Denver catching up to state in test scores, though some schools slipped

Denver Public Schools students did better on nearly every state English and math test this past spring than they did the previous spring, according to scores released Thursday.

DPS’s average scores still trail statewide averages — but not by much. For instance, an average of 36 percent of Denver students in grades three through nine met or exceeded expectations on state English tests, while 40 percent of students did so statewide.

In math, an average of 29 percent of DPS students met or exceeded expectations on tests ranging from third-grade math to geometry. Statewide, 33 percent of students met that bar.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called DPS’s progress toward narrowing the gap with statewide scores “striking.” Denver has accomplished this even while serving a higher proportion of low-income students: 69 percent in DPS versus 42 percent statewide.

But Boasberg said troubling achievement gaps persist between white students and students of color, and between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

“We’re grateful for the progress that we’ve made but deeply concerned that more of our kids aren’t at a higher level,” he said. “This isn’t about obsession with the tests or obsession with testing results. This is about meeting our goals of kids graduating ready for college and career.”

This past spring was the second time Colorado students took standardized English and math tests known as PARCC. The tests were developed by a group of states, including Colorado.

Having two years’ worth of PARCC scores allows districts and schools to compare for the first time how last year’s third-graders did versus the previous year’s third-graders.

However, the state has not yet released data that would show whether those third-graders scored higher when they took the tests last year as fourth-graders — a measure Boasberg said is more accurate and useful when assessing whether students are improving.

“Until we get the growth data, I think it’s premature to come to any conclusions — either about school improvement or school declines,” he said.

Mixed results for charter networks

Still, there were notable declines at some DPS schools. The homegrown and high-performing DSST charter school network saw decreasing scores at several schools.

For instance, the percentage of eighth-graders at DSST: College View who met or exceeded state expectations in English dropped by 19 percentage points, from 57 percent in 2015 to 38 percent in 2016.

At DSST: Cole, just 11 percent of sixth-grade students met that bar in math this past spring, down from 23 percent the previous year — a 12 percentage-point difference.

DSST also saw gains. The biggest in math was at DSST: College View, where 42 percent of seventh-graders met or exceeded state expectations in 2016, up from 25 percent in 2015. In English, 52 percent of sixth-graders at DSST: Stapleton met that bar compared to 46 percent the previous year, a 6 percentage-point increase.

DSST CEO Bill Kurtz echoed Boasberg in saying it can be tricky to compare one group of students to another. Doing so doesn’t necessarily show whether students are learning, he said.

“Cohorts of kids are different and they come in at different proficiency levels,” he said.

Kurtz said that in the wake of receiving PARCC scores for all of DSST’s 12 middle and high schools, teams of educators have been examining the network’s curriculum and how DSST prepares its teachers, in an attempt to uncover both strengths and weaknesses.

DSST is Denver’s biggest charter chain. The district has approved an ambitious expansion that could see DSST educating a quarter of all secondary students by 2024-25. Overall, Kurtz said he’s confident DSST’s current students are on the right track.

“If you look at the results, it would be hard to say that they’re not doing well and succeeding,” he said. Ninth-graders at DSST’s four high schools outscored district and statewide averages on the English test by at least 10 percentage points, for example.

The Denver-based STRIVE Prep charter network, which primarily educates low-income Latino students, also posted mixed results.

For instance, seventh-graders at STRIVE Prep: Montbello did better in English last year than the previous year: 39 percent met or exceeded expectations on the test, up from 17 percent.

But sixth-graders at STRIVE Prep: Westwood did worse in math: 14 percent met or exceeded expectations last year, down from 28 percent the previous year.

In a letter to the school community, CEO Chris Gibbons underscored that STRIVE ranks at or near the top of schools that serve similar populations, and that kids improve as they progress. For example, students who attended a STRIVE middle school for each of the past two years increased their rate of proficiency by an average of 8 points in English and 3.5 points in math.

Gibbons said in an interview that the charter organization is also viewing the results in the context of its expanded efforts to serve all students over the last two years. That includes putting more resources into special education centers, accepting students throughout the year and enrolling new students in all grades and not just traditional gateway grades. Not all charter schools do the same, a point seized on by charter critics.

“We have an enormous way to go to get to the level of proficiency our students deserve,” Gibbons said. “We want to operate schools that are closing achievement gaps writ large, not just for certain communities.”

Like many high-performing charter schools, STRIVE puts a strong emphasis on data to pinpoint what’s working and what isn’t. Gibbons said school officials have pinpointed potential explanations for slides in some subjects and grades. For example, he said, STRIVE believes that the academic standards taught in seventh grade math were too broad.

Other DPS schools that saw declines include Ellis Elementary, where third-grade scores dropped dramatically; Omar D. Blair charter school, which saw dips in fifth- and seventh-grade tests; and KIPP Montbello College Prep, where eighth-grade scores fell.

The DPS school board recently voted to place the KIPP middle school at a district-owned building, along with a KIPP elementary school. Kimberlee Sia, the executive director of KIPP Colorado Schools, said the charter network is disappointed with the middle school scores.

“We have already made significant changes to address this, including extending the length of class periods and adding staff to provide one-on-one intervention services to students needing more individualized instruction,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Big gains at some elementary schools

On the other end of the spectrum, several DPS schools saw big gains. The biggest was at Palmer Elementary, where 60 percent of third-graders met or exceeded expectations on last spring’s English test, compared to 16 percent the year before — a 44 percentage-point increase. Meanwhile, fourth- and fifth-graders at Palmer saw slight declines.

Principal Paula Bieneman attributes the rise in third-grade scores to a new personalized learning program that began when those students were in first grade. Kids are tested before they begin learning a subject, such as geometry, and then grouped according to ability, she said. When the unit is over, the students are tested again and retaught lessons if necessary.

“Our goal is to provide the right information and learning to kids at right time,” Bieneman said.

Students at Valdez Elementary posted gains across the board on every test in every grade. The biggest was on the fourth-grade English test, where 74 percent of students met or exceeded expectations last year compared to 41 percent the previous year.

Valdez is a dual-language school; half of the students are native English speakers and half are native Spanish speakers. Principal Jessica Buckley said research has shown that kids who learn to think in more than one language have an academic advantage.

“We’ve had the approach that it’s really about critical thinking and teaching kids how to think — that it’s not about doing formulas,” she said.

Doull Elementary also saw gains on every test, especially the third-grade English test, on which 43 percent of students met or exceeded expectations, up from 16 percent.

“Consistently where we are seeing growth (is at schools with) a real focus on student-centered learning, where kids are really challenged,” Boasberg said.

He said it’s encouraging to see positive results at schools that have a mix of students from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, at Valdez Elementary, 65 percent of students last year were children of color while 35 percent were white. About half of the kids qualified for government-subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

However, Boasberg noted that DPS’s achievement gaps remain officials’ biggest worry. (The state has not yet released district and school data on how students from different racial or socioeconomic groups scored.)

“Our opportunity and our challenge is making sure we provide our teachers and our school leaders with the supports and resources to perform at the very, very high level that we all need to perform at to close our gaps and see all our kids succeed,” Boasberg said.

Bureau chief Eric Gorski contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included a reference to how DSST: Stapleton students scored on the eighth-grade math test in 2016 versus 2015. We’ve removed it from the story. According to DSST officials, all eighth-grade DSST students took that test in 2015. However, in 2016, some eighth-graders took the eighth-grade math test while others took a higher-level math test, making year-to-year comparisons problematic. We’ve also changed the headline of the story as a result.