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Chipping Away at Colorado’s Achievement Gap

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April 18th, 2018

Closing the achievement gap is no simple task, but educators in Colorado are making progress. According to the Denver Business Journal, the state’s high school graduation rate is up again,  reaching its highest level since 2010. At 79%, Colorado’s current graduation rate is just under the national average of 84%, which has also been inching up in recent years.

While we should take time out to celebrate these achievements, it’s important to realize that work still has to be done. Throughout the state, more than a fifth of students aren’t getting a high school diploma. And in big districts like Denver, Aurora, Adams-Arapahoe, and Westminster, the number swells to a third or more.

Students of color, English Language Learners (ELL), and students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch continue to represent a disproportionate percentage of students failing to graduate. And problems for these subgroups continue to start early. According to reporting from Jenny Brundin for Colorado Public Radio, 70% of Denver’s white 4th graders read and write at or above grade level, compared to 28% of black students and 27% of Hispanic students. Even worse, only 13% of seventh graders in Denver Public Schools (DPS) who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch reach grade-level math targets, compared to 57% of their non-eligible peers.

The root causes of inequities like these, throughout the state and across the country, spring from many complex societal factors. While many of these factors may be beyond the control of any particular school or district, that should not be used as an excuse for avoiding the issue.

Many actions are being taken to continue chipping away at the achievement gap in the state. These actions focus on factors that schools and districts have influence over, and they also reach out into the larger community. Denver’s Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, for example, is taking a comprehensive look at equity. Its recommendations include using data to identify teaching practices that lead to more equitable outcomes, tracking non-academic and social-emotional learning data in addition to academic data, regularly evaluating resource allocation strategies to ensure success for all students at every school, and expanding the role of families and other stakeholders outside the school.

While these are admirable goals and solid recommendations, leaders at the local level must commit to tackling the biggest issues. Susana Cordova, Deputy Superintendent at DPS, is one such leader. Her commitment to helping ELL students demonstrates the power of focused effort on a persistent problem.

In an Education Week “Leaders to Learn from” profile on Ms. Cordova, Denisa R. Superville recounts the problems Denver has been experiencing with ELL students, despite being ordered by a federal court more than 30 years ago to improve instruction and family engagement among this student subgroup.

A combination of an inconsistent response and other systemic problems caused little progress, until Ms. Cordova came along in 2010. Under her leadership:

The staff dedicated to English-learners more than doubled. Experts on language acquisition were placed in other departments, such as literacy, assessments, and math, to ensure that those departments were keeping ELLs’ needs at the heart of their work. The district created a system to keep track of the home-language questionnaires that parents had to fill out when enrolling students to ensure that students were receiving required services. … All new teachers now take a semester of training on teaching English-learners. To establish an ethos that all teachers are responsible for supporting ELLs’ language development, teacher evaluations were revamped. Teachers must include a daily language objective for their classes, in addition to a content objective. When principals are conducting classroom observations, they look for the ways that teachers make their classes accessible to ELLs, and the techniques they use, such as charts, pictures, and examples. Everyone in the schools—from secretaries to gym teachers—were trained in working with English-learners. A new English-language-acquisition partner was assigned to schools to help them with parental engagement or anything they needed to respond to comply with the court-enforced agreement.

The district dug into its data and found that many students and families were waiving services such as bilingual and transitional language assistance. They used research to show parents, who often wanted their children to be in English-only classes as soon as possible, that students did better when they took the language-assistance classes.

While Denver’s ELL students are still at a disadvantage, having someone like Ms. Cordova in their corner offers hope that change, even if it’s just incremental, is possible.

The challenge of closing the achievement gap for ELL students and other underserved student subgroups in any district is a big one, and that’s all the more reason to encourage strong leadership, rely on data to drive decisions, and make an unwavering commitment to equity for all students.

To learn more about how data can help you modify instruction so all students can reach their full potential, contact Illuminate Education.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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