Activists are worried DPS is overstating students’ literacy, so parents will get individual progress reports

Early elementary school families in Denver will get individual reading progress reports from the school district next month.

First graders read in a bilingual classroom at Goldrick Elementary School, Dec. 7, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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First graders read in a bilingual classroom at Goldrick Elementary School, Dec. 7, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; elementary school; education; goldrick elementary; learning; classroom;
First graders read in a bilingual classroom at Goldrick Elementary School, Dec. 7, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat

Early elementary school families in Denver will get individual reading progress reports from the school district next month explaining how their children are doing against higher standards meant to better predict whether students will be reading on grade level by third grade.

The letters are being sent in response to mounting concerns that scores from early literacy tests taken by students in kindergarten through third grade are painting too rosy a picture of their reading abilities. The state-required early literacy tests are less rigorous than the state-required reading and writing tests taken by students in grades three through nine.

Last week, the leaders of six civil rights and community groups issued a joint letter echoing concerns from some education advocates that the district is “significantly overstating literacy gains.” Denver uses scores from the early literacy tests to help rate elementary schools, which the groups said has led to inflated ratings that are misleading parents.

At a school board meeting Thursday, representatives from the six groups and other community leaders repeated a call for Denver Public Schools to revise the color-coded school ratings before February, when families will begin to choose schools for next year.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told the school board and Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Boasberg reiterated at the meeting that the district would not change this year’s ratings, which were released in October. However, he said it will issue reports to families of students in kindergarten through third grade about their student’s reading progress.

“At the end of the day, the most important goal here is that our students get on track,” he said.

Many students who scored well on the early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation, did not do as well on the more rigorous state tests, which are called PARCC. The state and the district consider PARCC the gold standard measure of what students should know.

Third-graders are the only students required by the state to take both tests. Some Denver schools had wide gaps between the percentage of third-graders who scored at grade level on iStation and the percentage who did on PARCC. Examples include:

  • Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, where 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.
  • Farrell B. Howell in far northeast Denver, where 74 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or above on iStation, but only 11 percent did on PARCC.
  • Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment in east-central Denver, where 81 percent of third-graders scored at grade level or above on iStation, but 30 percent did on PARCC.

All three schools were rated “green” this year, the district’s second-highest rating.

Most Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system, which does not take early literacy test scores into account. Denver uses its own rating system, called the School Performance Framework, which does. Including early literacy scores provides a more comprehensive look at how all of a school’s students, from kindergarten to fifth grade, are performing, Boasberg said.

Due to a change this year in the School Performance Framework formula, the early literacy scores made up more of an elementary school’s rating than in past years.

Boasberg said it has become clear that scores from iStation and other early literacy tests don’t line up with PARCC scores. He emphasized that it’s a statewide issue. A state law called the READ Act requires students to take the early literacy tests, and the “cut points” the district uses to score students were set by the state.

He previously announced the district would raise the cut points for the early literacy tests starting in 2019. The higher cut points will be used to calculate school ratings, making it harder for elementary schools to earn top marks. The district will continue to use the state cut points to identify students who qualify for help under the READ Act.

The law requires the state to send extra money to districts to help students who score “significantly below grade level” in reading. Melissa Colsman, the associate commissioner of student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said the state cut points are meant to identify the most struggling students, not to indicate whether students will be proficient on PARCC.

“Scoring above the cut scores on the reading assessments does not mean a student is proficient,” she wrote in an email. “It just means the student is not significantly below grade level. There is a gap between being significantly deficient and being proficient.”

The individual reports Denver Public Schools will send to families in January will make clear whether their children are hitting the targets, or “aimlines,” they need to hit on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade level on the third-grade PARCC test, Boasberg said.

Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver and one of the leaders who expressed concerns, said that while the district’s promise to send individual reports to families doesn’t alleviate those concerns, “it’s progress.” He said the bigger issue is whether the district should be using results from the less rigorous early literacy tests to rate schools at all.

“That’s where the real public policy discussion needs to continue to happen,” Bradley said. “There’s some progress being made but we still have work to do.”