Across the board, Denver students making above-average progress on tests, study shows

5 min. read
(Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)
Alan Petersime

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat  

A new study finds that Denver students are making more progress on standardized tests than the state average, regardless of whether they attend a traditional district-run school, a district-run innovation school, or an independent charter school.

"The pattern of performance here is consistent," said researcher Macke Raymond, director of the Stanford-based group CREDO, who presented the findings at a Denver event Wednesday. "It's an incredibly strong advantage for students in Denver no matter what school they go to."

The Denver study is part of an effort by CREDO to examine students' academic progress from one year to the next in 10 cities. The study looks at academic growth data across three school years, controlling for differences in student populations.

In addition to reporting overall results, the study zooms in on the academic progress of black and Hispanic students, students from low-income families, students learning English as a second language, and students receiving special education.

In each group, Denver students made more progress on reading and math tests than the state average for those groups. Raymond said she was especially struck by the progress of black and Hispanic students, who make up about two-thirds of Denver's nearly 93,000 students.

"Honestly, we just don't see that across the country," she said.

The study also compares the progress of students at traditional district-run schools with the progress of students at independent charter schools and district-run innovation schools, which have waivers that give them charter-like autonomy from some district and state rules.

The data don't show any clear frontrunner among the different types of schools. But there are standouts. For example, it shows black students in charter schools made statistically significantly more progress in reading than black students in traditional district-run schools.

The study has several limitations. For one, it doesn't explain why Denver students are making more progress than their peers statewide. It also doesn't address what is arguably the most persistent issue plaguing the district: the wide test score gaps between, for example, white students and students of color, or students living in poverty and those who are not.

CREDO did not break out results for white or middle-class students in its publicly available presentation, making it impossible to see those gaps. State data reveals that white students in Denver and those from higher-income families are progressing faster than students of color and those from low-income families, resulting in big gaps that the district has struggled to close.

The gaps were among the concerns raised by audience members at Wednesday's event, which included a panel discussion featuring Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova and others.

Cordova didn't shy away from acknowledging Denver's challenges. Nor did she dwell on the comparison between charter and district-run schools -- a politically charged data set, given that some community members favor charter schools and others staunchly oppose them.

"I believe we need to put labels aside and say, 'Who is doing the best work and how can we learn from that?'" Cordova said. "As a member of the district, there have been times we've been incredibly arrogant about what we're doing. We need to set that aside."

CREDO's prior studies have drawn criticism from other researchers who worry that their approach does not necessarily allow for apples-to-apples comparisons.

The gains seen in Denver relative to the state average would be categorized as moderate, according to a recent analysis of effect sizes in education.

Other audience members questioned whether the results for black students should be celebrated when separate data show that they are more likely to be handcuffed at school and face other inequities. A district staff member asked how Denver Public Schools should balance giving schools autonomy with requiring educators to complete implicit bias training.

Cordova, a career Denver educator who became superintendent in January, answered by saying equity "is the purpose of our schools' existence."

"Big systems don't change because they want to," she said. "They change with people on the inside and people on the outside pressing them to change."

The study was funded by the John and Laura Arnold Foundation on behalf of the City Fund, an organization whose aim is to push cities to expand charter schools and district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. The Arnolds also support Chalkbeat.

Denver Public Schools is known nationwide for its embrace of the "portfolio model" of managing schools, which involves giving schools autonomy, allowing families to choose among them, and closing schools that don't make the grade.

Cordova said that while it's difficult to pinpoint why Denver students are making more progress than the state average, "having the kind of schools we have in our district has encouraged improvement." Initially, she said, that improvement was the result of competition. Going forward, she said she hopes any improvement is the result of collaboration.

"It can't only be about competition," she said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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