Denver students of color not making as much progress on state tests as white peers

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Escuela Valdez about academic growth. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Escuela Valdez about academic growth. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Escuela Valdez about academic growth. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat 

Denver Public Schools students from disadvantaged backgrounds are progressing far slower on state tests than their more privileged peers — and the gulf between the groups is widening.

White students in DPS are making bigger gains from year to year on state math and English tests than students of color, according to data released this week.

The difference separating those two populations is larger than the last time academic growth figures were available. English learners and students living in poverty face similar growth gaps — and the largest difference is between students with disabilities and those without disabilities.

“Already we are asking ourselves lots of very hard questions, and we need to have lots of far-reaching discussions on the changes we need to eliminate those growth gaps,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

The growth data released by the Colorado Department of Education show Denver students overall are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers, as they have for years. Progress on English tests was especially strong.

The state’s largest school district considers the academic growth of its students more important than how well they score on state English and math tests, known as PARCC.

With a harder-to-serve population, DPS has long trailed state average test scores, although the district is catching up. District officials reason that measuring how much students learned in a year is a better gauge of school quality than students’ raw scores, which can depend on whether they were ahead or behind academically when they entered school.

“What’s most important is not where you start but how much you grow,” Boasberg said Tuesday to students at Escuela Valdez, a dual-language elementary school in northwest Denver that posted the highest growth scores in the district.

DPS vs. the state

The state’s median growth percentile is always about 50.

Groups of students, schools and districts that have a percentile score higher than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers. A percentile score lower than 50 means on average students are learning at a slower rate than their peers.

DPS’s score in English was 56, which is an increase for DPS. The last time growth numbers were released, in 2014, DPS posted a 53 in reading and 55 in writing. Growth rates could not be calculated in 2015 because that was the first year students took the PARCC tests.

DPS’s median growth percentile in math was 51. That represents a decrease. The last time DPS’s growth was that low was in 2008. In 2014, for example, it was 55.

Boasberg said he’s disappointed in the math growth. The number for sixth-grade math was especially low at 46. “It’s important we discuss closely why we saw a drop,” he said.

However, he said the district’s foremost concern is its growing achievement gaps between students with more privilege and those with less.

For example, the median growth percentile in math for white students was 63, while the number for black and Latino students was 47, a 16-point gap. That’s a bigger difference than in 2014, when it was 9 points. It’s also much bigger than this year’s statewide gap, which is 7 points.

Black and Latino students made up 70 percent of the approximately 91,000 students in DPS last year. Meanwhile, 23 percent of students were white.

The median growth percentile in math for students who qualify for subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty, was also 47. The number for those who don’t qualify was 61. That’s a 14-point gap, which is twice as big as the state gap. In 2014, DPS’s gap was 8 points.

Nearly 69 percent of DPS students qualified for subsidized lunches last year.

Growth is king

Academic growth is the most heavily weighted factor in DPS’s color-coded school rating system, known as the School Performance Framework. For elementary and middle schools, it counts for 66 percent of the rating. For high schools, it counts for 45 percent of the rating.

District officials recently debated whether to change that. They were considering making academic status — the raw scores students earn on the tests — count for more. Academic status currently counts for just 22 percent of an elementary school’s rating, for example.

But in the end, officials decided against recommending a shift. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said they were concerned that putting more emphasis on status “would not accurately describe what we think is most important in schools, particularly schools that have a large number of low-income students,” who have historically scored lower on tests.

“The only way get better is an outsized emphasis on growth,” she said.

Boasberg cited a number of possible fixes to narrow the district’s achievement gaps: Investing in more school psychologists, social workers and nurses to tend to the social and emotional needs of at-risk students; strengthening early literacy programs to eliminate reading gaps among young kids; and providing better coaching for teachers to improve instruction.

Funding for all of those initiatives is included in a tax increase proposal DPS is asking voters to approve in November, he pointed out.

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