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Test gaps linger

Ohanian Comment: Those who ascribe a rise in test scores to their own hard work must be prepared to accept blame when the test scores dip. Instead, educators should reiterate the point that test scores cannot be considered an intellectual gross national product.

The achievement gap between the poorest schools and the most affluent schools has widened or stagnated in seven of Colorado's 12 largest school districts since state testing began eight years ago.

The other five districts have managed to shrink the gap between their well-off schools and their high-poverty schools. But only two have reduced the difference in the fourth-grade reading test to less than 20 percentage points, according to a Rocky Mountain News analysis of fourth-grade reading scores since 1997.

"There's a lot of rhetoric about all this change" in schools since state testing began, said Van Schoales, vice president of the Colorado Children's Campaign.

But he questions whether instruction is truly improving.

A notable success story among the districts analyzed by the News is Pueblo city schools. All students made gains there, but progress in schools with the most low-income students far outpaced that of schools with fewer poor students.

In eight years, Pueblo's poorest schools posted a 20-point gain in the percentage of fourth-graders passing the reading test in the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP. In 2004, the most recent year for which data were available, 61 percent of students in those schools scored proficient or advanced.

In contrast, in the poorest Denver schools, 22 percent of fourth-graders were reading proficiently in 2004, compared with 65 percent in Denver's most affluent schools. Denver had the largest gap of those studied.

The Pueblo and Commerce City school districts had the smallest gaps, 13 percentage points each. However, Commerce City has a high poverty rate in all its schools: from 87 percent in its poorest schools to 80 percent in its most affluent. By contrast, the poverty rates in Pueblo range from 90 percent to only 37 percent in the most affluent schools.

Few match Pueblo

Annual statewide testing of Colorado's children in grades three through 10 began in 1997, offering the first real look at how schools and districts compare in reaching academic standards.

The Colorado Children's Campaign has done its own analysis of statewide CSAP test scores for fourth-graders since 1997, eight- graders since 2000 and 10th-graders since 2001. The advocacy group's preliminary results found little or no change in the achievement gap based on income at each of those grade levels, Schoales said.

State Education Commissioner William Moloney said the state's 178 districts vary greatly.

"(They) are in very different places in terms of their personnel, their resources, their approach to learning," he said. "No one can tell someone what to do about curriculum, save people within that district."

But few other districts have matched Pueblo's success in teaching poor children.

Some education officials say larger Colorado districts don't want to admit they can learn from the smaller 17,600-student Pueblo District 60.

Other educators say Pueblo is too different - its students less mobile and less beset by language issues - to compare it fairly with districts facing complex urban challenges.

Some of that may be true, but children are children, said Pueblo School District 60 Superintendent Joyce Bales.

"Anybody can do what we're doing," Bales said. "It's easier to complain and whine than it is to do this hard work.

"We work hard. We work hard all the time."

Analyzing gaps

The News analysis was prompted by a recent report released by the Piton Foundation and the Colorado Children's Campaign.

Their study focused on Denver, reporting that DPS' poorest schools have showed little progress since state testing began in spring 1997. The small gains DPS made have occurred in the schools with the fewest students living in poverty.

The result is an achievement gap between the poorest and most-affluent schools that is 8.4 percentage points higher than in 1997.

This despite at least two expensive literacy campaigns in DPS elementary schools during that time. In 1998, Denver voters approved a $17 million tax increase to help fund classroom reading aides in grades K-3. A 2001 report found that the aides had no impact on test scores.

In fall 2002, DPS launched its latest literacy effort, using "literacy coaches" to spread a single reading and writing plan to all elementary schools. It calls for students to work on literacy for three hours every day.

So far, the effort, which cost more than $8 million in training for the coaches and materials, also has had little impact on test scores.

Wayne Eckerling, who retired last month as assistant superintendent for research and planning at DPS, cautioned against comparisons of Denver and Pueblo. The student populations are different, he said, with Denver grappling with families dragged down by "intergenerational poverty" and more language issues.

Students in Pueblo schools speak 17 languages; in Denver, they speak 86.

Several DPS board members say they believe the current literacy plan is the right one, though they're counting on new Superintendent Michael Bennet to improve its implementation.

Board member Kevin Patterson said DPS needs to pay attention to teachers' concerns about the program. Those include a lack of flexibility in instruction, a lack of remediation and worry that some parts of the program don't work with all students.

"We need to work with them," he said of teachers, "and figure out how to make it work, or change it."

Statewide issue

Six of the dozen districts studied by the News experienced widening gaps since 1997: Denver, Cherry Creek, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, St. Vrain and Jefferson County.

Jeffco's gap grew only slightly, by a single point, as schools at all income levels gained an average of 9 points.

In a seventh district, Harrison School District 2, which serves many military families south of Colorado Springs, the gap remained static, declining 1 percentage point, as all schools posted average gains of about 10 points.

Four districts besides Pueblo - Adams Five-Star Schools, Aurora, Commerce City and Westminster - narrowed their gaps, by 5 to 7 points.

In Cherry Creek schools, the income gap grew about 5 points. Students in the non-low-income schools gained about 6 points on state reading tests, compared with a gain of less than a point by the poorest schools.

Administrator Elliot Asp said those numbers don't tell the whole story.

Schools in the poorest category have been hit hardest by Cherry Creek's rapidly changing demographics. For example, in the past five years the district has seen a 270 percent increase in students from families whose primary language is not English.

"Being able to just maintain that kind of performance is something that we feel reasonably good about," Asp said.

Bales, who has spent 12 years in Pueblo, recites a series of steps taken there that have led to success. Among them: focus intensely on literacy, emphasize attendance, make quarterly assessments and train teachers based on weaknesses revealed on tests.

But she said closing achievement gaps begins, first of all, with the belief that all children are basically the same.

"People have the resources," Bales said. "They just need to use the resources differently and put the focus on those things that are important."


Poverty and achievement: The Rocky Mountain News examined achievement gaps by income in 12 Colorado school districts, studying differences in results on the Colorado Student Assessment Program between the lowest- and highest-poverty schools. Schools in each district were divided into quartiles based on the percentage of students who qualified for free- or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty, in fall 2004. Each quartile had roughly the same number of students. The methodology is similar to that used for a recent report on Denver Public Schools developed by the Colorado Children's Campaign and the Piton Foundation.

Testing: The News tracked the percentage of fourth-graders scoring proficient or advanced on state reading tests between 1997 and 2004 in each quartile in each district. To confirm those findings against a broader sample of test scores, the quartiles were compared based on a percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on reading, writing and math tests in elementary schools from 2002 to 2004. This second set of findings is not represented in the story or graphics because it covers a shorter time frame.

School districts: School districts were chosen for analysis based on size and economic diversity. For example, Douglas County School District was not included in the analysis because it has little economic diversity. Fountain-Fort Carson School District has been praised for closing achievement gaps, but the district of fewer than 6,000 students was too small to include.


— Nancy Mitchell and Burt Hubbard,
Rocky Mountain News


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