Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, finds much to admire in Denver Public Schools’ state test results but questions the pace of progress.

Denver Public Schools continues to make slow and steady improvement at most grades on most subjects. Many improved 1% to 2.5% percent from 2011 to 2012 – making Denver, once again, one of the most improved large school districts in the state.

Students from Denver’s Gilpin School pose in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Reading is up 2.74%, math is up 1.57% and writing is up 1.92% from 2011. The Denver “Median Growth Percentiles” were also positive, with numbers ranging from 53 in math to 57 in writing (Average is 50). The DPS writing scores are most impressive in light of Colorado’s overall poor performance on writing. The state scores have been flat or dropping recently, with this year’s scores falling by 1.3% over 2011.

While the Denver progress should be celebrated, the district is still not meeting its own goal of 3.5% growth in every subject and every grade. It is important to note that at the rate of about 1% per year, which is the current growth rate for low-income fourth-grade Denver students, it will take more than 40 years to match Colorado’s average fourth-grade reading score.

This is far below other high-performing states like Massachusetts and a long list of other nations’ average scores. DPS has a long way to go. We have not yet broken the 2012 data down by income and ethnicity, which may pinpoint more clearly where progress is being made for these particular groups of students.

See the chart below to see how the scores this year relate to the scores in the last five years.

In taking a closer look at schools in Denver, there is good news for many of the schools that have been targeted for improvement. We’ve seen some great starts in many of the schools undergoing turnaround in Far Northeast Denver. In the coming months, other DPS schools and turnarounds throughout Colorado would benefit from understanding the changes these schools made in regards to additional student tutoring, teacher hires, programing, leadership and school coaching.

I visited several FNE schools last winter and noticed that their school cultures were different from what had I seen in the past. Most students were on task and going to class while most adults were focused on a singular mission. We know that a focused school culture undergirds a high-performing school. It is nice to see that some of this has paid off. Obviously, the real test of these “turnaround” schools will be in the next couple of years as the attention and money fades away.

Many of the top-performing DPS schools for 2012 are familiar to those that follow DPS’s high-performers. West Denver Prep-Harvey Park, Federal and Highland (now called STRIVE Prep), KIPP-Sunshine Peak, Montbello and College Prep, Polaris, DSST-Stapleton and Cole, Bromwell and Steck are all at the top of various achievement lists.

It is nice to see a number of district-managed schools like Whittier, High Tech Early College, McMeen, Newlon, Gust, McGlone and Green Valley Elementary demonstrated some very high scores in growth, improvement in percent reaching proficient, or both. Even North High School made some nice gains.

High Tech Early College is particularly impressive with a reading growth score of 78, which is highly unusual for a high school. This was the most impressive school in terms of culture that I visited in FNE Denver. It was very clear that everyone in that building was focused on success. The principal of High Tech Early College, John Fry, was very successful when he was at Ridgeview Academy; it seems he is taking it to a new level at High Tech Early College.

Interestingly, Venture Prep, a school that was being considered for closure last year, had the second-highest “median growth” math score in DPS at 85. Not sure what that means but it will be interesting to follow this year.

As always, it is critical to put any year’s TCAP scores in the context of three or more years, while also having an understanding of the school’s context in terms of student population and changes to programs, funding or people for each year.

You can see the growth and grade level scores for DPS schools here. You can also see a chart below that totals the percent point change in reading for each grade level (e.g., grade 3, 4 and 5 reading proficiency change from 2011 to 2012), providing the overall average for a school. (Writing and math charts are below.)

There are also a few typically high-performing schools that took dips from their historically high growth and percent proficient data. Odyssey, DSST-Green Valley and West Denver Prep’s Lake (now STRIVE Prep) are a few schools where having a better understanding of what happened might be illuminating.

As is often the case, this data dump, which has something north of 500,000 Excel data cells for Colorado’s schools (Denver has nearly 50,000), will only be of value if school board members, administrators and teachers dig deeply to better understand why a particular school is working or not. DPS has had steady progress for more than six years with 1% to 3% growth on most grades and subjects for each year. Some schools have made dramatic progress while other schools have continued to struggle.

It is time that DPS revisit the district’s goals (See True North Report) while diving more deeply into what is and is not working. DPS will not be able to move beyond the current rate of progress without having a more detailed understanding of what is causing the improvement. Is it the curriculum? Instruction? Leadership? Professional Development? All of the above? Or certain aspects of each or something else?

We think it’s time to take a much closer look and evaluate some of these district practices and schools to make the changes required for transformational rather than incremental results across the district. Four generations is too long to wait. I’ll be dead.