After latest test scores, some Denver schools celebrate success, while others wonder what went wrong

Students at Fairview Elementary work to create comic books in 2015. (John Leyba/Denver Post)
Students at Fairview Elementary work to create comic books in 2015. (John Leyba/Denver Post)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat  

Students from one Denver elementary school in west Denver showed astronomical progress on state tests after the school diligently adhered to state academic standards, gave teachers a tighter focus on particular subjects and helped students outside the classroom.

Across town in northeast Park Hill, another school was surprised to see its progress take a dive after previously being one of Denver Public Schools’ shining stars — even though it had built on strategies school leaders thought were responsible for its previous success.

Data released this week measuring student growth on the state’s English and math tests identifies schools that are leading the pack and those falling behind. But for every school that can point to steps taken that may have moved the needle, there are others that can’t quite put their finger on it, illustrating the difficulty of drawing definitive conclusions from test results.

The numbers released this week are called median growth percentiles, and they gauge how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers.

Students — and schools — that have a median growth percentile greater than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers who scored similarly on state tests, known as PARCC. A score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate.

Districtwide, Denver Public Schools students had a median growth percentile of 56 in English and 51 in math. But the scores of individual schools varied widely.

Some Denver schools with high growth were also high-scoring, meaning many of their students met or exceeded state expectations on the tests, which students in grades three through nine took last spring. Others were low-scoring but making rapid academic progress.

The same was true for schools with low growth. Some continued a trend of scoring poorly on the tests. For others that had previously done well, the new numbers represent a backslide.

That’s the case at Smith Renaissance School. The northeast Park Hill elementary school showed extraordinary academic growth in 2014, the last time figures were available. (The state did not release them in 2015 because it was the first year students took the PARCC tests — and calculating growth requires at least two years of data.) Smith’s numbers were so high, the district gave it a “blue” rating for growth, the highest Denver Public Schools awards.

This time, the school’s median growth percentile in math was 12, the lowest in the district. In English, it was 32.5, which was 21.5 points below the district average for elementary schools.

Principal Emily El Moudaffar said the school takes its scores seriously.

“It was a surprise,” she said of Smith’s low growth. “But even though it was a surprise, we are doing everything we can to identify root causes and make adjustments.”

She said the school has worked hard on improving its instruction and that all the right elements seemed to be in place last year, including strong teachers and effective lesson planning.

But before Smith even received its PARCC scores, El Moudaffar said the school decided to ramp up its focus on students’ social and emotional needs. Nearly 94 percent of kids last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

This year, Smith has a new assistant principal whose entire job is making sure students needs are met so they can spend their time learning, El Moudaffar said. She also hired an additional social worker to connect families with mental health services and other resources, and a second restorative justice coordinator to help mediate conflicts between students.

Another new element this year is that instead of jumping right into academics at the start of the school day, students spend 25 minutes each morning in a “class council meeting” where they’ll talk about expectations for the day, she said. The school will also hold weekly assemblies to celebrate students who meet those expectations and others.

El Moudaffar said she hopes the efforts will “rebound us as quickly as possible.”

Conversely, Fairview, located in the Sun Valley neighborhood, saw huge growth this year after earning the lowest possible growth score in 2014. In math, Fairview’s median growth percentile was 71, a full 20 points above the district average. In English, it was 68.5.

Most of the school’s raw scores were still lower than district averages, though third-graders scored higher than average in English while fourth-graders did the same in math.

Principal Antoinette Hudson said the school hasn’t made any radical changes since she took the helm in 2013. It’s still a traditional district-run school that serves a high-needs population. Last year, 99 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

Instead, Hudson said she and others worked to align the curriculum to the state standards that dictate what students should learn in each grade. She split teachers’ duties so some could focus on reading while others focused on math, and she made sure they had extended and uninterrupted blocks of time to teach those two key subjects.

She said the school also puts a premium on students’ non-academic needs, providing breakfast and inviting an organization to hand out bags of food on Friday afternoons so families have meals over the weekend. Using a combination of grants and district money, Hudson said she’s able to have mental health workers at the school five days a week.

“It’s a collective effort of people putting their heart into this work,” Hudson said.

Denver’s biggest charter school network, DSST, posted above-average growth at nine of the 10 schools that were open last school year. (Two more DSST schools opened this fall.)

The numbers at some of its schools, including DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School and DSST: Byers Middle School, were well above district averages. DSST: Cole Middle School was behind, with median growth percentiles of 47 in math and 46 in English.

However, tracking math growth for older students is tricky. Starting in seventh grade, students can take any one of five PARCC math tests. Students who took tests two grade levels higher than their own grade level did not have growth results in math, state education officials said. For DSST, that meant 333 eighth-graders were not included, according to the network.

The STRIVE charter network has 11 schools, eight of which posted growth data from last year. Its numbers were more mixed, with most but not all schools exceeding district averages.

One school, STRIVE Prep SMART Academy high school, had much lower median growth percentiles than the rest: 24 in math and 30.5 in English.

But network CEO Chris Gibbons cautioned against judging a high school by its PARCC scores alone since only 9th graders were required to take the tests last year. He pointed out that SMART Academy had an average ACT score of 18.7, which is slightly higher than the district average, and that 92 percent of seniors were accepted to four-year colleges.

However, Gibbons also said the network is prioritizing replicating at SMART Academy the strong math growth that occurred at STRIVE Prep Excel high school. It posted a median growth percentile of 62, which is 7 points higher than the district average for high school math.

McAuliffe International middle school in north Park Hill also saw blockbuster growth numbers: 72 in math and 84 in English. The school is high-scoring, with 82 percent of sixth-graders meeting or exceeding state expectations on the English PARCC test, for example.

McAuliffe is a relatively new school; this is the fifth year it’s been open. Its ongoing success led the district to approve a second, smaller McAuliffe campus that opened last month and will eventually be housed at the long-struggling Manual High School in the Whittier neighborhood.

Kurt Dennis, principal at the original McAuliffe, said he’s not sure there’s a secret to the school’s success. But he ticked off several factors that may have helped. McAuliffe is an innovation school, which means it’s free from certain rules and policies. The school has a longer day and a longer year, which allows for 30 percent more instructional time each year, Dennis said.

McAuliffe is also a big school, with 825 students last year. Dennis said the size allows teachers to specialize in a single subject, such as algebra, and to collaborate with a team of teachers who teach the same class. Because of the school’s extended hours, core content teachers also have three hours per day to plan and create lessons together, he said.

“The idea is that if you give teachers a manageable workload … and as much planning time as possible, they’re going to do great work,” Dennis said.

McAuliffe also has a relatively low poverty rate. Just 20 percent of students last year qualified for subsidized lunches. Districtwide, 68 percent of Denver Public Schools students qualify.

Dennis said that despite his confidence in the school’s teachers and students, he was pleasantly surprised by this year’s PARCC status and growth scores.

“To see the types of results that we saw surpassed even our best expectations,” he said.

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