These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


Has Denver become Mississippi or maybe Chicago? 4 Takeaways from Denver’s NAEP scores

By Van Schoales

Denver has had a remarkable transformation from the sleepy cow town that I moved to 20 years ago. We now have five nationally recognized art museums (we had only one back then) and many new amazing restaurants, some with James Beard awards.  Denver has a thriving economy with a 2.8% unemployment rate with impressive growth in the tech sector. Cranes throughout the city showcase high end apartments and shiny new workspaces that the thousands of twenty-somethings moving to Denver every month work in.

Denver’s Mayor Federico Pena called for voters to “imagine a great city.”  And much of that planning back the in the 1980’s when Denver was in one of the darkest economic downturns.   Yes, there are problems with affordable housing and transportation as there are with most booming cities, but our schools may remain one of the largest challenges for the development of Denver.

For the first time, we were able to see how Denver Public Schools stacks up to all other states and 27 other urban school districts on student achievement via the gold standard for student assessment, NAEP.  The NAEP test results were sadly illuminating in that you can compare how different groups of students at the 4th and 8th grade in reading and math are doing relative to their peers across the country. An important caveat: since 2017 was the first administration of NAEP in Denver, we can only make a one-time comparison and cannot compare how students are doing over time, which would be powerful.   

NAEP is an important tool for understanding how our school systems are doing.  We applaud Denver Public Schools for participating in the program and would like to see other districts like JeffCo and Aurora participate as well.   Only through regular releases of quality student achievement data will our school districts and Colorado know where they’ve made progress in supporting students to master key academic skills and content, and where there needs to be more improvement.

We have had a variety of ways to compare to Denver to Colorado and other school districts using the state tests, CMAS and CSAP for years but this is the first time we have been able to make national comparisons (well, PARCC was supposed to do this, but that’s another story).   The CMAS data has shown that Denver has improved moving from the bottom quintile in the state to currently being right the middle of the state on academic performance when looking at the average scores.

When you break down the CMAS scores by student group, the story in Denver is far less positive. Yes, all groups of students, low-income, Black, Latinx, etc. have improved over time on the state tests but huge gaps have grown. A major reason is the dramatic increases in white, non-FRL performance.  The rising tide is lifting some boats more than others.

The Denver NAEP results provide another important view into Denver’s progress relative to the national standards for proficiency.   The 2017 Denver NAEP data allow us to better see how much Denver has improved and how much progress is needed. Recent analysis by A+ Colorado on CMAS progress for Denver suggest it will take about 30 years for DPS to reach their own proficiency goals.  30 years.

Since we we only have one NAEP data point for Denver we cannot tell how long it will take for DPS to reach the equivalent benchmark on NAEP, we do know it will be a very long journey given how low the Denver NAEP scores are in 2017.

Here is a chart for the 8th grade reading scores which I would argue are the most important scores from NAEP.   You can see similar patterns for the 2017 4th grade reading and math as well the 8th grade math scores.  Scale scores that are within one or two points of one another are not seen as statistically significant differences by NAEP.

NAEP 8th Grade Reading 2017 Scale Scores

City or State Average Score Low Income Hispanic White Black
Denver 258 250 250 285 249
Miami 261 256 263 272 251
Chicago 259 253 257 283 248
Mississippi 256 248 253 271 242
New Mexico 256 251 251 271 *
Colorado 270 254 257 279 250

Green scores that are statistically similar to Denver’s scores.  

* means that NAEP reporting standards were not met.

Here are my four takeaways from the Denver NAEP results-

  1. Not as good as most education reformers think: Denver has a very long way to go to get most students to proficiency.   Many other geographies thought to have much greater challenges are doing as well or better than Denver.  Denver’s average scale score for 8th grade reading is 258 overall. The state of Mississippi’s average scale score for 8th grade reading is 256. Denver and Mississippi’s scores are not statistically different for 8th grade reading in 2017. Denver ranks as average or below on the scale scores for 4th and 8th grade achievement in reading and math when compared to all of the other large cities taking NAEP.  
  2. Massive Gaps: The NAEP data show once again that Denver has enormous gaps by family income and race. The gaps are some of the largest of any urban districts participating in NAEP. The NAEP results mirror the large gaps in the most recent CMAS results.
  3. Low-Income and Students of Color do not perform well in Denver:  Low income and students of color are performing at the same levels as some of the lowest performing performing states and cities in America.  Mississippi’s 8th grade reading average scale score for low income students are at 248. Denver’s low income students are performing at 250, not a significant difference from Mississippi.  Miami, Chicago and Colorado low income students are all doing better than low-income students in Denver are performing.
  4. Denver’s English Language Learners doing relatively well:  Denver is among the highest performing urban school districts for English Language Learners with a scale score of 234 for reading at 8th grade (the average for all cities who participated in TUDA is 224).   Denver’s ELL students are statistically similar to other Colorado ELL students with a 232 scale score. Denver has focused resources and attention on ELL’s because of the federal consent decree and it seems to be paying off in results.

Bottom line? Denver should be doing far better than the NAEP results are showing.  There should be no comparison to Mississippi, New Mexico or Chicago given the resources and reform energy of Denver. It is disappointing to see such dismal results in 2017 (but important to remember how much worse Denver’s results would have been in 2006).  Clearly, DPS needs to do far more to accelerate improvement.

Once again it is time for a serious revamp of the district’s strategic improvement plan and an honest review of what has been and has not been working.   

Let’s get to work.