THE BLOG
08/10/2010 02:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hard truths or sour grapes?

Why is the DPS administration withholding CSAP results from the Board of Education, especially since the principals already have them?

- Denver school board member Andrea Merida "Tweet," July 28

This year we received the(CSAP) information on Friday July 30 and the embargo is until August 10. I am particularly concerned since the principals received their scores early last week, and the embargo is now two weeks long. Please explain why that is occurring. This Friday is reasonable; a week from tomorrow does not seem so.

- School board member Jeanne Kaplan email to DPS brass, August 2.

This was the rumor being floated last week: Denver Public Schools had done badly on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests. To protect U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (a former DPS superintendent) in his primary battle against Andrew Romanoff, Bennet supporters, including Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, had hatched a plot to delay the CSAPs' release until primary day - today.

Well so much for nefarious conspiracies. DPS, we now know, has continued to make steady progress on the CSAP. Most impressive is the district's trajectory over the past five years.

Overall scores in reading and math have climbed by 15 percentage points since 2005. In writing, the gain has been a more modest 5 percentage points. Still, this kind of slow, steady progress is what you want to see in an organization where real change may be taking root. One-year spikes are cause for skepticism.

Everything having to do with DPS has become politicized in this political silly season. Even before their big New York Times pension story coup, Romanoff supporters were peddling the CSAP delay tale. As circumstantial evidence for this conspiracy, whisperers, board member Kaplan among them, told reporters to check out Commissioner Jones' central Denver home. There they would find not one but two Michael Bennet yard signs. The horror!

Well that much was true. Jones, as is his right, displayed two Bennet signs in his front yard. (Yes, I took the bait and did a drive-by).

I don't expect anyone involved in this nonsense to say "my bad" and retract anything. That would require some humility. As a community, though, we should acknowledge and celebrate success.

And it's not as though I'm a DPS cheerleader. In 2005, when I was at the Piton Foundation, I co-authored a study with Van Schoales, then with the Colorado Children's Campaign. Among other things, the study examined DPS CSAP scores from 1996-97, the first year CSAP tests were administered, through 2003-04. At that time, DPS was being lauded by then-Gov. Bill Owens as the state's shining star.

The data told a different story. CSAP scores had basically been flat over the long-term. Telling this hard truth incurred the wrath of the superintendent and board members. But the numbers were there for all to see.

So by all means, let's take a hard look at the numbers and dispense with happy talk, which has long been run rampant inside 900 Grant Street. Are Denver's CSAP scores good? No, not yet. Do they approach those of the state, which sets a pretty low bar? Again, not yet. Are achievement gaps still a major problem? You bet. Is DPS still rife with problems? Yes.

Still, let's give credit where it's due. Gains over the past five years have been real and impressive. If they continue, Denver will catch up to, and eventually surpass the state. Sustaining this kind of progress is perhaps the most difficult challenge for urban public school systems. So I wouldn't bet my house on the trend continuing over the long haul.

But I tip my hat to Bennet, Tom Boasberg and others for the legitimate progress the district has made under their leadership.

And what does Kaplan, an elected steward of the district, have to say about these new results? Once her conspiracy theory crumbled to dust, she resorted to badmouthing the CSAP scores. She may think she's telling hard truths. But I catch the scent of sour grapes, which in this context strikes me as perverse.

In an email to Chief Academic Officer Susana Cordova and her fellow board members last week, Kaplan wrote (the following is unedited):

"Please explain to me why are results are really positive. I understand the trend over five years, but honestly, when the Board set its goals in Policy A of a minimum of 3.5% gain per year per subject, and the only category where we came close in all 5 years was this year's reading at 3.3% (which is cause to celebrate, I agree), what am I missing? I don't really care how we are doing vis-a-vis the state. We are consistently 15 - 20% behind the state, and why is the state the benchmark? The state scores are nothing to write home about. 68% in reading, 55% in math, 53% in writing. State scores in Escruita (sic) and Lectura aren't any better 53% to our 47% and 59% to 51%. Again, if our goal is to educate all kids, it seems to me we aren't anywhere near where we ought to be, nor are we moving fast enough. Nor is the state.

"So, if I am wrong in analyzing these results, please tell me why. We have been instituting "reform" for almost five years now. I had a conversation with Tom over a year ago before last year's scores came out where we both agreed if we didn't see significant improvement, perhaps it would be time to change course. I don't see significant improvement. All I see is very, very slow growth with non-proven experiments added to already overburdened school environments. Tell me what the next plan is and why I should believe it will have any better results. One of my frustrations: this isn't a pr campaign; this is about the kids and why we aren't serving them as well as we should be."

Reading Kaplan's email, I imagined a kid coming home from school one day, flush with pride. After years of failure, he has finally made the high school baseball team. He bursts through the door and tells his mother the good news.

She looks at him, unmoved. "I'm sure you'll never get in a game," she says. "You still suck at sports."