Jefferson County Colorado (“Jeffco”) lies to the west of Denver, and has a population of almost 600,000. It is quite affluent — 42% of adult residents are college graduates, and median household income was $70,164 in 2015.
The Jefferson County School District is the 36th largest in the United States (Denver is the 35th). Jeffco serves 86,000 students, with 160 schools and total revenues of about a billion dollars per year. Of Jeffco’s 4,900 teachers, 98% are rated by their school principals as effective or highly effective (despite the fact that, according to the US Department of Education, 30% of them are chronically absent). One third of Jeffco students are eligible for free and reduced lunch (which includes students who “choice-in” to Jeffco from surrounding districts), and 11% attend charter schools.
According to a recent report, “86% of Colorado parents surveyed believe their child is on track to meet the goals and expectations for learning at his or her grade level” (“Hearts and Minds of Parents in an Uncertain World” by Learning Heroes).
Most of these parents are dead wrong.
It isn’t hard to see why they are so overconfident. Parent-teacher meetings are usually short, with a brief review of student grades that are usually good. The fact that grade inflation is now rampant in K-12 is never mentioned (e.g., “Measuring Success” by Hurwitz and Lee and “High School Grade Inflation” by Zhang and Sanchez).
So parents remain blissfully ignorant of the true state of student achievement, and the heavy lifetime price their children will pay for school districts’ betrayal of their trust.
Here are three questions that Jeffco either won’t answer or will spin like an Enron earnings report:
1. How many students are not on track to graduate college and career ready?
2. How far off track are they?
3. What are the chances they will catch up?
On the 2016 ACT, only 32% of Jeffco 11th grade students met all four college and career ready benchmarks. Yet eight years earlier, Jeffco had told their parents that 77% of third graders met state standards in Reading, and 74% in Math.
Since then, state standards have grown tougher, and in 2017 only 45% of Jeffco 3rd graders met expectations in English Language Arts and 47% in math.
The NWEA MAPs tests that Jeffco students take each year are used to produce a report that is never shared with the public: An estimate of the percentage of students who are not on track to meet the ACT’s college and career ready benchmarks in reading and math. Here were the results from the Spring 2016 MAPs assessment:
As you can see, the percentage of students who are not on track to meet the ACT college and career ready benchmarks increases as they move from 5th to 9th grade. And remember, only 33% of Jeffco students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Much as it would like to, the district can’t blame all of these poor results on poverty.
These projections are also fully consistent with our previous analyses of Jeffco’s TCAP scores (the assessment which preceded CMAS/PARCC), which consistently showed that the grade-to-grade increase in the minimum cut score for proficiency was usually larger than the average grade-to-grade increase in average student score, which over time led to more and more students falling behind and being rated below proficient in math and reading.
The second question is how far behind Jeffco’s off-track students really are. The challenge is that the cut score for meeting state standards rises each year; on TCAP the increase was roughly .20 to .35 standard deviations a year. So a student who falls behind has to make up lost ground plus the annual increase in the cut score for his or her grade. How many of them can do this?
To answer that, we started with the cumulative distributions of Jeffco’s 2016 CMAS scores for ELA and math (available by request from the Colorado Department of Education). We calculated the percentage of students in grades 5 and 8 for ELA, and 5 and 7 for math (because CMAS gives more than one math assessment to 8th graders) who were less than one standard deviation under the cut score for “Met Expectation” and the percentage that were more than one standard deviation below the cut:
The ACT organization has researched how many of these kids will eventually catch up and graduate college and career ready.
They found that 5th grade students who are less than one standard deviation below “Met Expectation” or proficient on a typical standardized assessment have a 29% chance of meeting the ACT college and career ready benchmark in reading, and a 19% chance of meeting it in math. Eighth graders who are more than one standard deviation below the cut have just a 10% chance of meeting the C&C standard in reading, and a 3% chance in math (“Catching Up to College and Career Readiness”).
In Jeffco, the data indicate that instead of catching up, even more students fall behind between 8th and 11th grade.
Shocking as it may be, the painful truth is that by the end of fifth grade (and likely before that) more than half of Jeffco students are so far behind that they will probably never catch up to college and career readiness, given Jeffco’s achievement growth rates for the past fifteen years.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for any Jeffco leader to admit that.
This ugly and heretofore hidden truth is certainly a bitter pill to swallow for taxpayers who spend a billion dollars a year on Jeffco schools.
Even worse, it is a massive betrayal of the trust that tens of thousands of parents have for years placed in Jeffco’s leaders. For all the children the district has failed, it will likely be a lifetime tragedy.
And for our nation, the full extent of K12’s failure, as exemplified by Jeffco, portends a grim future of slow economic growth, worsening income inequality, and rising social and political conflict.
Tom Coyne is a private sector executive with nearly 40 years of organizational strategy and performance improvement experience. He is a political Independent and former member of Jeffco’s District Accountability Committee