Large achievement gaps remain even as Denver students’ scores tick up on national test

by Erica Meltzer

(Originally published October 30, 2019, by Chalkbeat Colorado)

Denver students improved their performance this year on the math and reading tests known as the nation’s report card, but the district continued to demonstrate some of the largest test score gaps based on race, ethnicity, and family income among large urban districts.

That’s according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, test released Wednesday. The tests are given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in each state. Scores from 27 urban districts, including Denver Public Schools, are reported separately.

Nearly 600,000 students nationwide took this year’s exams on tablet computers between January and March. The test is an important marker of how America’s students are doing and how that’s changed over time.

The improvement among Denver students bucks national trends in which elementary- and middle-schoolers saw their reading scores drop this year. Eighth-grade math scores fell slightly too, leaving a small uptick in fourth-grade math scores as the lone nationwide bright spot in the 2019 scores.

This continues a decade-long period where average scores in reading and math have remained essentially flat, even as the score gaps between high- and low-achieving students has been widening.

Statewide, scores were also essentially flat, though Colorado math scores ticked up slightly. As in years past, Denver students performed below the state and national average.

This is the second year that Denver’s scores have been broken out. Denver officials sought to be included in this group so that they could compare themselves with districts with similar demographics. Among this group, Denver students are roughly in the middle of the pack, with students in Boston, Miami, Austin, San Diego, and Charlotte, North Carolina, frequently leading.

In fourth-grade reading, 32% of Denver students were proficient, while 35% were proficient in math. On the eighth-grade tests, 29% of students were considered proficient in reading and math. These results were not considered statistically different than other large urban districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test.

Denver students as a whole improved in both math and reading, but only the results in math were considered statistically significant.

But Hispanic fourth-grade students in Denver and those from low-income families had the largest gaps in performance on math exams when compared with their white and more affluent peers of any of the 27 large urban districts. On fourth-grade reading exams and on both reading and math eighth-grade exams, Denver was also in the bottom tier for test score gaps, with only Atlanta and Washington, D.C., doing worse in many cases.

On fourth-grade tests, low-income students and students of color improved their performance compared with 2017 — the last time the test was given — but white students and those from more affluent families improved even more. On eighth-grade tests, those students saw their performance fall from two years ago, while white and affluent students held steady or made very minor gains.

This represents a longstanding challenge for the Denver district, Colorado’s largest. Two years ago, then-superintendent Tom Boasberg said making progress against these gaps was the district’s “No. 1 priority.” Current Superintendent Susana Cordova, who took over in January, has also made closing gaps in test scores and improving equity in the district a top priority.

Tamara Acevedo, Denver’s deputy superintendent of academics, sees bright spots in the results, including that Denver made greater gains on several tests than did other urban districts.

She attributed that to work the district has done to improve reading and math instruction in the early grades. That includes more explicit phonics instruction and more complex texts that encourage critical thinking in literacy and making sure teachers have the training and classroom materials to teach math in ways that align with new standards.

“We’re making progress,” she said. “And that helps us to know that some of the reform efforts and improvements are taking hold and having impact. We’re pleased by that but know we need to accelerate progress and make further gains.”

That includes by developing more culturally responsive curriculum and making sure teachers have the same rigorous expectations for all students. Acevedo said she is hopeful that by continuing that work, the district will close these persistent test score gaps that also appear in state standardized tests results.

Statewide, 44% of Colorado fourth-graders scored proficient in math and 40% scored proficient in literacy. Math scores were up slightly, but neither test showed improvements that would be considered statistically significant, meaning scores were essentially flat.

In eighth grade, 38% of students were proficient in reading, and 37% were proficient in math.

Colorado fourth-grade students scored higher than the national average of public school students in reading and similar to the national average in math. Eighth-graders outperformed the national average on both tests.

Here’s how Denver ranked among urban districts on the four tests: