Denver Public Schools students made more academic progress on state English and math tests last year than ever before, and the overall percentage of third- through ninth-graders who scored at grade level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, test results released Thursday show.
It’s a significant feat for the state’s largest school district, which ten years ago lagged far behind.
Notably, the diverse district’s academic growth was driven by low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners. Students in those groups made progress at a faster rate than students not into those groups, shrinking the growth gaps between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers.
Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the results “wonderful.” He said that while the district’s gaps “are still large and concerning, it’s nice to see them moving in the right direction.”
Overall, more Denver Public Schools students met or exceeded state expectations on most tests in most grades. Among the biggest increases was the percent of third-graders at grade level in literacy. In 2015-16, 32 percent of DPS third-graders met that bar. In 2016-17, it jumped to 38 percent, a 6 percent increase. The statewide average was 40 percent.
Boasberg credited the district’s focus on early literacy, and its monetary investment in new curriculum and more training for early childhood teachers and paraprofessionals. A tax increase approved by voters in November includes $6.8 million to continue those efforts.
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“We’ve never had growth like that in third-grade reading,” Boasberg said.
Denver students also continued to outpace their peers across Colorado in academic growth. The state uses “median growth percentile” scores to gauge how much students learn each year.
A growth score higher than 50 means students are learning at a faster rate than peers who started the year at the same academic level as them. A growth score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate than their academic peers.
Denver’s overall growth score in literacy last year was 57, up from 56 the year before. In math, the overall growth score was 53, up from 51.
“It all starts with our teachers and our school leaders,” Boasberg said of the improvements.
The district has expanded to nearly all schools an initiative that allows successful teachers to teach part-time and coach their colleagues part-time, and Boasberg said the latest scores are proof that helping teachers improve helps students, too.
Mixed results for reform efforts
Denver is nationally known for its education reform efforts, which include granting charter school-like autonomy to district-run schools, and replacing persistently low-performing schools with schools officials deem more likely to succeed.
The school board this past school year voted to close three long struggling elementary schools, including Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver. Board members chose as a replacement a program proposed by leaders of nearby McGlone Academy. The district has held up McGlone as a rare example of a successful turnaround school.
But this year, McGlone’s scores faltered. On most tests, fewer students met expectations last year than the year before. Growth scores fell, too, to 41 in literacy and 37 in math.
Amesse posted higher growth scores: 58 in literacy and 49 in math.
Boasberg said he remains confident in McGlone’s leaders. McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’s excited by the growth at Amesse. She pointed to other measures of success at McGlone, including low student suspensions and high teacher retention.
“McGlone, over multiple years, has had very strong growth,” Boasberg said. “This year, their growth wasn’t as strong. Part of that was all of the time and effort that the school put into planning for and working with the community around the Amesse turnaround.”
He added that, “I think you have extraordinary teachers and leadership at McGlone who have an exceptional track record, and I’m confident they’ll have strong growth this year.”
Boasberg and other officials held a celebratory press conference Thursday at the Manual High School campus, which is also home to McAuliffe Manual Middle School, a replication of the successful McAuliffe International School. Both are innovation schools, which means they’re run by the district but enjoy flexibilities with scheduling, teacher hiring and firing, and more.
McAuliffe International has for years posted high test scores and had above-average growth. The school is not as diverse as the district as a whole — just 18 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, and 37 percent are students of color.
McAuliffe Manual opened last year with sixth grade in an effort to bring high-performing middle schools to northeast Denver, a neighborhood that historically lacked them. Nearly six in 10 students qualified for subsidized lunches, and seven in 10 were students of color.
While McAuliffe Manual trailed McAuliffe International in the percentage of students at grade-level, its growth scores were nearly as high: 72 in both literacy and math, compared to 75 in literacy and 74 in math at McAuliffe International.
There was more good news for three previously low-performing elementary schools — Goldrick, Harrington and Schmitt — in the midst of school turnaround. New principals spent the 2015-16 school year soliciting opinions and crafting plans to improve academic performance at the schools while other leaders handled day-to-day operations — a strategy known as “year zero.”
In 2016-17, the first year the new principals and their improvement plans were in place, growth scores at all three schools shot up by as much as 24 points.
Another turnaround school also showed remarkable progress. The University Prep Steele Street charter school, which replaced struggling Pioneer Charter School last year, boasted growth scores of 84 in literacy and 91 in math. The math growth was the highest in the state.
The test scores at four schools that are part of another DPS experiment, an “innovation zone” that gives the schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools, were a mixed bag.
Two of the schools, Creativity Challenge Community and Denver Green School, posted increasingly strong scores on most tests and showed high academic growth.
But two other schools, Ashley Elementary and Cole Arts and Science Academy, saw low growth and slipping scores. The median growth percentile in math at Ashley was 32, well below the district average. At Cole, where just 5 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade-level, it was 17.
Boasberg said the scores at those two schools are concerning. But he said he appreciates what the innovation zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, is doing. District officials have talked about inviting other innovation schools to form similar zones.
“They have some very strong leadership at the zone,” Boasberg said, “and we recognize that for any one school, you are going to have some ups and downs.” He cautioned against reading too much into the scores of Ashley and Cole.
Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, said it’s become clear that Ashley and Cole, which serve a more at-risk population, need a different type of support than the other two schools. Zone leaders are working to help them figure out how to use their increased autonomy — and freed-up funding — to boost student achievement, she said.
“We have confidence in these school leaders,” Roberts said, “and we will provide additional support in coaching hours and oversight over how their resources are used.”
About two-thirds of Denver’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty, and about 77 percent are non-white. More than a third are English language learners.
The district has in the past struggled to close wide gaps between how much students in those groups learn each year and how much students not in those groups learn.
White students, non-low-income students and non-English language learners have historically posted higher proficiency scores and higher growth scores, which continues to be the case. But their growth scores last year remained relatively flat.
Meanwhile, the growth scores for students of color, low-income students and English language learners increased by several points for every group in each subject.
In literacy, Latino students had a growth score of 54 and black students had a score of 53. White students had a score of 64, meaning the gaps were 10 points and 9 points, respectively. Those are smaller than in 2015-16, when the gap for both black and Latino students was 13 points.
The gaps in math last year were bigger than the gaps in literacy. Black and Latino students had a growth score of 50 in math, while white students had a score of 63, a 13-point gap. However, that gap also shrunk from the year before, when it was 16 points.
The smallest gap last year was between English language learners and native speakers in literacy. State statistics, which include “exited” English language learners who no longer need services in the count of English language learners, show no gap at all.
But DPS statistics, which break exited English language learners into their own category, show a 3-point gap between English language learners and non-English language learners.
The district has in recent years provided more training for educators who teach English language learners, worked harder to ensure all eligible students get those classes and made efforts to encourage bilingualism and biliteracy, Boasberg said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.