Achievement gap carves across Colorado schools
Despite a few exceptions, the new data show that state educators have a long way to go to get students from all backgrounds to perform well.

By Karen Rouse and Allison Sherry
Denver Post Staff Writers

A persistent achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian classmates permeates Colorado schools - from the wealthiest, top-rated districts to the poorest and most rural - newly released state data show.

There were a few exceptions to that rule. But from Boulder Valley, which had some of the largest gaps in the state, to top-ranked Cherry Creek High, to the Yuma School District, data from the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests indicate many schools are struggling to bring all their students to the same performance level.

At Cherry Creek High, for example, 82 percent of the white ninth-graders were at least proficient on last school year's writing test and 41 percent of Latino ninth-graders could write at grade level.

At Manhattan Middle School of Arts and Academics in Boulder, 88 percent of white students were proficient in sixth-grade writing, but only 24 percent of the Hispanic students were.

"The achievement gap exists on all economic levels," said Glenn E. Singleton, executive director of the California-based Pacific Educational Group and a consultant for the Cherry Creek Schools.

Until now, it wasn't possible for Colorado parents to examine how well individual schools or districts served students from all ethnic backgrounds. But as part of its effort to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Colorado Department of Education has for the first time released school and district CSAP results broken down by ethnicity and gender.

The CSAP measures how well public- school students meet state standards for math, reading, writing and science.

"School-level folk and district-level folk need to look at this data, and if they see gaps like that, they need to look at steps that can be taken, " said Zollie Stevenson of the U. S. Department of Education.

At Casey Middle School in Boulder, white students outperformed their Latino classmates by 58 percentage points on the sixth-grade writing CSAP test and by 75 percentage points on the seventh-grade reading test.

Principal Allison Boggs said the scores reflect an influx of recent immigrants and native Spanish-speakers at the school. When measuring student progress, she said, students show growth from year to year in every category.

Similar explanations were given by other districts.

At Douglas County High School, just 7 percent of 10th-grade Latinos were proficient or better at math, compared with 71 percent of Asians.

Julia Caley, assistant principal, said the south-metro-area high school has traditionally had few minority students and now finds itself trying to educate Latinos who are not native English- speakers, or are transient.

"This is really a new issue in Douglas County that we've not had to work with before," Caley said. "We're just as concerned as anybody else."

In the Denver Public Schools district, Superintendent Michael Bennet is hoping an audit of the district's reading program will help his new staff figure out how to improve the performance of all students, said spokesman Mark Stevens.

In addition, the district's new chief academic officer, Jaime Aquino, started Monday.

"We really need to roll his thinking into this," Stevens said of Aquino.

Blame for wide achievement gaps among students can be placed on the home environment, schools and other factors, said Kevin Welner, the director of the Education Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "The one thing we know is that it's absolutely a combination," he said.

Welner thinks schools could ease achievement-gap problems by raising expectations and giving teachers support. Often, he said, teachers are asked to "have high expectations for all kids, to make all their students get A's," but get no help on how to do it.

"There's no quick fix; there are so many people who say, 'All you have to do is class-size reduction,' but it's no one thing," he said.

Peter Sherman is trying to focus on what he can control. The principal at Denver's Park Hill K-8 school, Sherman faces enormous gaps in achievement between black and white students. In fourth-grade reading, for example, 92 percent of white students are at least proficient, yet only 37 percent of his black students are.

He's hoping to set up mentorships and individualize his classroom.

"A classroom teacher with 28 students can only do so much," he said. "But we're trying to figure out what more we can provide our students."

Faced with one of the largest achievement gaps in all of Denver's high schools, East High administrators say they are taking it seriously.

They have enrolled, for example, all freshmen and sophomores in accelerated geography. They are pairing successful seniors with all freshmen as mentors.

But assistant principal Andy Mendelsberg said the problem can be extremely difficult.

"You continually come up with programs, and somehow at the end it's just not necessarily showing up," he said, referring to CSAP results.

In 10th-grade math, for example, 63 percent of the school's white students were at least proficient, yet only 6 percent of the school's black students were.

Students have their own explanations for why whites and Asians so often out-test black and Latino students.

"It has to do with the individual. If they hang out with drug dealers, they're not going to do well," said Jessica Jones, a black ninth-grader at Cherry Creek High School.

During lunch period at East High School, three black students watching a nearby basketball game said white students are treated differently.

Ashleigh Hampton, 17, a junior, noted that there are only three black students in her accelerated-algebra class. She said that when she asked a teacher for help, she was encouraged to take advantage of peer tutoring.

"I've tried to ask my teacher questions and even said I'd come in after school, but they usually just tell you they don't have the time to help," Hampton said.

And then there is the question of how seriously high school students take the CSAP test.

"When I took the test, I mostly guessed on some of the questions," said East High student Mandisa Jones, 16. "I didn't really care. I think East is still a good school, and I really like it here. I just wish some of the teachers would like to help out more."

When confronted with gaps, school districts traditionally have a pattern of ignoring the role race plays, said Singleton, who has been working with educators in Cherry Creek schools for four years on identifying how race impacts teaching and learning.

Instead, Singleton said, administrators seek out other explanations, such as a student's socioeconomic status, mobility, language issues or lack of parental support.

"We have to be able to change the nature of this conversation," Singleton said. "How can you take credit for the kids who are successful but not take responsibility for kids who are not?"