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The top elementary schools in and around Denver

September 2010

Growth Spurt

Inside the never-ending search for a better way to evaluate schools, teachers, and students.

the technology industry has always made promises about how its wares will improve lives, yet it’s been mostly unable to concoct tools to assess our children’s schools. That may be changing: This year the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has introduced an improved method for examining how well public schools do their job.

The Colorado Growth Model (available at SchoolView.org) provides access to data about how public schools perform and where they need to improve. It shows schools’ proficiency and growth in reading, writing, and math, presented as an X–Y graph divided into quadrants. “Growth” refers to keeping kids in sync with their grade level, so a school in the 50th percentile on the growth axis is helping its students improve one grade level each school year—i.e., it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. Schools above 50 percent are helping their kids learn faster, while schools below that level have some catching up to do. Although schools in upper-middle-class areas typically score high on both axes, putting them in the upper-right quadrant, schools in poorer neighborhoods can distinguish themselves by staying above 50 percent on the growth scale. “If your school is in the bottom-right quadrant, that’s OK, too,” says CDE associate commissioner Rich Wenning. “If you have a lot of kids with learning deficits or coming from free-and-reduced-lunch (FRL) backgrounds and you’re in the bottom right, that means you’re catching kids up.”

Though the growth model still lacks metrics for factors such as teacher engagement, it’s a more sophisticated method for rating a school’s performance. “The growth model is the most interesting thing to happen in Colorado schools in the past five years,” says Alexander Ooms, a founding board member at West Denver Prep and a contributor to EdNewsColorado.com. “Up to now, schools with high FRL numbers suffered. But some of these schools are doing great growth numbers, and some schools coasting with high-income kids aren’t doing as well as their reputations would have you believe.”

Test Cases

Dr. Mary Monroe, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Denver, explains the ins and outs of gifted-and-talented programs.

Q: How does a child get admitted to the typical gifted-and-talented program?
A: These programs generally are looking at the child’s IQ and learning style. But certain private schools that do require testing tend to have a soft cutoff because, for some, admissions have gone way down. It’s a business decision. They’re officially looking for an IQ of 130 and up, but they also look at kids from a more holistic perspective, so parents who can’t get their kids to test at those exact scores might still be able to get them in.

Q: Is there a trick to passing the test?
A: The tests are controversial because they give an unfair advantage to families who know what schools test for and can train their kids. Families with a gifted kid who don’t know about the test might not be able to get their kid into the program, but if you ask a school what’s on its test, they’ll probably make it available to you. It’s human nature to want the info ahead of time for your child, but it’s also problematic. If you just train them to pass the test, they’ll be going into a school that might not be designed for them and run the risk of failing out. I try to help parents with the perspective of it all and try to show them that there is a whole range of schools available.

Q: Do private gifted-and-talented programs offer more than public ones?
A: In most ways, parents are getting their money’s worth and have more say in their child’s education. But there are bad teachers everywhere, and private schools are no different, although they’re sometimes easier to get rid of than at public schools.


Q: What if you have a gifted child but can’t afford private school tuition?
A: The point is to get those kids more challenging work so they won’t be bored. Families scramble for alternatives to DPS because they’ve heard such bad things, but it’s still very possible to get a good public education here.

Q: How have you addressed gifted programs with your own children?
A: I’m not sure I’d want my kids going to a school with gifted in the title. Truly being gifted is a good thing, but it can also be a burden. I’d like my kids to feel like they fit into a range of environments, and some highly gifted kids can have problems with that. IQ scores themselves are not nearly as valid, reliable, or useful as a lot of people in our field like to say they are, so I don’t have a lot of faith in the test, the process, or the pressure it puts on kids. What matters most to me as a parent is that my kids go someplace where they feel comfortable.

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