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Report: DPS Must Set Higher Goals

Originally posted on EdNewsColorado, May 23, 2012. Copyright ©
Written by Nancy Mitchell.

The report, True North: Goals for Denver Public Schools, states the five broad goals outlined in the district’s current strategic plan “lack rigor, structure and consistency” and that “too few of these goals … either focus on or prioritize academic achievement.”

For example, the report notes two of the district’s goals – to increase access to full-day kindergarten and to see higher enrollment – are worthwhile but should not be among the top priorities listed in its Denver Plan.

“We are hard-pressed to accept that this should be one of five major goals for a school district – particularly as the directive to enroll all students in full-day kindergarten is neither within DPS’s power nor mandate,” the report states.

As for enrollment, the report’s authors continue, “Adding students to the district without strengthening the core educational program simply increases the number of children with insufficient academic preparation.”

Instead, the report urges DPS to focus on the proficiency of its high school graduates and to provide more quality school offerings regardless of geography, grade level or income.

Recommended goal: Increasing exit-level proficiency

Among available options, the report’s authors cite performance on the 11th-grade ACT – which now draws little attention – as the best districtwide measurement of proficiency and college-readiness.

A version of the ACT college entrance exam is given to all Colorado high school juniors, capping the annual CSAP/TCAP exams given in grades 3 through 10. No state exams are given to high school seniors.

Here are the goals advocated for ACT performance by the report’s authors compared to current DPS results:

Goal: All 11th-grade students should meet the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s recommended ACT scores to bypass college remediation – 18 in English, 17 in reading, 19 in math.

Goal: The average 11th-grade student should meet the national College Board’s recommended ACT scores to have a high probability of success in college – 18 in English, 21 in reading, 22 in math.

Current status: In 2011, DPS’ average 11-grade scores were 16 in English, 18 in reading and 18 in math. State averages were 19 in English, 20 in reading and 20 in math.

To get to higher ACT scores, the report argues for higher academic growth goals in the grades along the way.

DPS currently exceeds the state’s median academic growth, which roughly translates into a year’s growth in a year’s time. The report acknowledges that but says the district must improve faster if it is to bridge academic gaps.

For example, the statewide average Median Growth Percentile is 50. DPS’ 2011 growth scores were 51 for elementary, 54 for middle school and 54 for high school. The report recommends goals of 55 for all grade levels.

Such growth figures would put DPS in roughly the highest third of the state’s 35 largest school districts. DPS now ranks 7th among the 35 at the middle and high school levels but is 15th at the elementary level, according to the report.

Recommended goal: Improving access to quality schools

In defining a “quality school,” the report’s authors use the district’s current School Performance Framework but set a higher bar.

Currently, the annual school report cards denote schools achieving 50 percent of its possible points as “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations.” More than half of DPS’ schools have attained those levels.

The report lists the 50 percent benchmark as “far too low” and raises it to 70 percent. Twenty-five Denver schools, or 18 percent, meet that higher mark in 2011.

Using that higher bar, that equates to 13 percent of DPS students attending a quality school. Consider income and the number sharply declines.

Among students eligible for federal lunch assistance, an indicator of poverty, seven percent were enrolled in a quality school in 2011. That compares to 29 percent of their more affluent classmates.

And the older students get, the less likely they are – affluent or not – to attend a quality school by that higher definition. In 2011, the report’s authors estimate there were “roughly 6,830 elementary student in quality schools but just 2,040 middle school students and 1,100 high school students.”

To increase access, the report recommends setting numerical goals for each grade level. For example, increasing the number of high school students in quality schools by 400 each year, with at least 320 of those students qualifying for federal lunch aid.