Review of Test Score Data Prompts Changes in Schools

Author: Jake Cowan and Tom Kingsley
Date Posted: August 29, 2011

The Piton Foundation and the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s analysis of test scores in Denver schools revealed that improvements in schools’ test scores have been overstated in State reports. The findings were detailed in the July 2005 report, “Looking Back to Face Forward: Confronting Growing Gaps and Declining Achievement in Denver Schools.” The report showed that improvements in accountability ratings masked test score decreases as well as the widening achievement gap between wealthier and poorer schools. The decline in the number of schools performing unsatisfactorily had been reported as a measure of improvement in State reports. In most instances, schools that have moved out of the unsatisfactory category have done so by moving their lowest-performing students to the partially proficient category. So, while the ratings look better, the number of schools performing at the partially proficient level remained high. The partially proficient level is the second lowest rating on the four point measurement scale being used in the State reports; unsatisfactory is the lowest level on the scale. Further spatial analysis revealed that in the Denver metro, improvements by schools above the partially proficient level were geographically concentrated in high-income neighborhoods, while low-income neighborhoods saw their schools perform at the same or lower levels than the previous year. As a result, the achievement gap in Denver schools widened, despite a concerted effort over the past few years to narrow it.

The report received negative reviews from the district superintendent at the time of its release. However, in 2006 the newly hired superintendent, Michael Bennett, recognized how useful the study was in indicating to both an internal audience and to the public some of the challenges facing Denver Public Schools. The district is now working much closer with outside researchers, as well as Denver's residents, to identify district challenges and to look for solutions. The Piton Foundation plans to revisit the study in the near future to reexamine achievement trends to evaluate the district's progress.

This story was initially published in Stories: Using Information in Community Building and Local Policy in June 2007.

This story was written by staff at the Urban Institute, drawn from documents and interviews with Matthew Berry and Terri Bailey of the Piton Foundation and the Colorado Children's Campaign. Shift Research Lab is the Denver partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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