measuring up

Denver Public Schools lowering the bar on school rating measure in response to concerns

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg talks to sixth graders in 2012 .

Denver Public Schools is making a last-minute change to how it calculates its color-coded school ratings for this academic year by lowering the bar on one key measure.

The adjustment — which involves scores on state standardized tests in math and English — comes after school leaders were given preliminary ratings last week and raised concerns.

Those ratings, obtained by Chalkbeat, show that before the change DPS is adopting, about 45 percent of schools would have dropped at least one color on DPS’s five-color scale. About 38 percent would have stayed the same, while about 17 percent would have gone up. The district’s color ratings range from a high of “blue” to a low of “red.”

DPS officials have long known students’ scores on new, more rigorous math and English tests were likely to be lower than on previous state tests. But officials were not planning on tweaking the rating system as a result, reasoning that the new tests are more in line with what students are expected to know and lowering the bar would paint a misleading picture.

But DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that district officials changed their minds after seeing how the ratings shook out.

“When you talk about a framework in the absence of data, your discussion is going to be a lot less rich than when you have real data that makes you aware of issues that, on a more abstract and theoretical level, you’re not aware of,” he said.

The change relates to students’ status scores, meaning how many students met or exceeded expectations on state tests, known as PARCC. Status scores are one ingredient that goes into a school’s rating. Growth scores — or how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers — are another and count for more.

Because the way the state calculates growth has stayed the same despite the switch to the new tests, those scores haven’t been impacted by the tests’ increased rigor the way status scores have. That’s why the district is focusing on the latter, Boasberg said.

Here’s what DPS is proposing to do and why:

In the past, the percentage of students who had to meet or exceed expectations for a school to earn a high DPS rating ranged by grade level and subject between 20 and 50 percent, Boasberg said. The preliminary ratings released last week used those same cut points.

Once school principals saw the ratings, Boasberg said they raised concerns about using different cut points for different grade levels and subjects. While doing so made sense for the old state tests, on which younger students tended to do better than older students, he said it makes less sense for the new, more consistent PARCC tests.

And while DPS’s rating system has long been tougher than the state system, Boasberg indicated some principals wondered whether it was too tough. For example, he said, they told the district it didn’t seem fair that a school where, say, 40 percent of third-graders met or exceeded expectations on the state English test could get a low DPS rating when an average of only 37 percent of Colorado third-graders met that bar.

As a result, the district is planning to recalculate its ratings using cut points that range from 20 percent to 40 percent, instead of 50 percent, Boasberg said. However, in a letter to principals Wednesday obtained by Chalkbeat, he warned the cut points for all tests would rise to 50 percent in 2018.

The district is aiming to provide recalculated ratings to school leaders by Oct. 21 and release them publicly on Oct. 27. Boasberg said he expects “very few” schools’ ratings to change. Even so, he said, “the consistency and coherence of the (rating system) is important. We didn’t feel it was right to ignore thoughtful and well-grounded concerns about that … even if it means extremely little difference for most schools.”

At a school board meeting Monday, before district staff decided to lower the cut points, board members said they worried how families would react to drops in color ratings.

“Let’s say you had a school that’s been green for a couple of years,” said board president Anne Rowe. “This comes out and that school is orange. As a parent, I might say, ‘Whoa! What happened to my school?’ My question is, ‘How do we communicate: what does that mean?’”

Research shows families rely on the rating system, known as the School Performance Framework, when making choices about where to send their children. And because of Denver’s universal school choice system, students can request to enroll in any school in the city. Since school budgets are based on enrollment, their choices have financial consequences.

“I’m really worried about public perception, where a lot of people just look at that color and make decisions about schools,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Boasberg told the board it will be important to caution families about the quirks of this year’s ratings. Those cautions include that because last year was just the second year Colorado students took PARCC, only one year of growth data is available.

In the past, DPS has used two years’ worth of growth data to calculate schools’ ratings. The district believes using more data smooths out one-time anomalies that can cause scores to swing up or down, he said.

Since growth counts more than status in DPS’s rating system, having just one year of data means schools are likely to see bigger swings this year, Boasberg explained.

This year’s ratings are especially high-stakes because the district plans to use them to help make decisions about whether to close persistently low-performing schools under a new DPS policy called the School Performance Compact.

The policy uses three criteria to determine whether to close a school. The first is whether that school ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all schools based on multiple years of ratings.

The board is currently scheduled to vote in December on whether to close schools.

new testing plan

ISTEP panel proposes mostly tweaks after months of work

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

After months of meandering conversation, a state committee charged with finding a replacement for the hated ISTEP exam seems to have fallen short of its goal of revamping the test and instead has only been able to propose minor changes and tweaks.

The new test program endorsed by the state’s ISTEP panel this morning calls for students in grades 3-8 to take one exam in English and math at the end of the year, and for 10th-grade, students would return to taking exams in English, Algebra I and biology at the end of the year. The main differences would be that tests are given in one period, rather than two spread throughout the winter and spring.

“It has been a long and tedious process,” said ISTEP replacement panel Chairwoman Nicole Fama, a principal in Indianapolis Public Schools. “But without everyone’s input and support we wouldn’t be where we are today.” Other panel members include lawmakers, policymakers and educators.

There was no discussion today about the recommendations, crafted mostly over email in the past week.

Read all our coverage of ISTEP and other testing issues here.

Formed by the Indiana General Assembly earlier this year, the panel was asked to address lawmakers’ concerns that ISTEP was not credible and was administered poorly. Members cited lack of public trust in the test and scoring and technical problems that have plagued ISTEP since it was retooled for 2015 to match new, more rigorous state standards.

The panel now suggests that the state consider using off-the-shelf tests or questions rather than create an entirely new test. Using existing questions from outside vendors, which could include Common Core-linked exams, is a cheaper option, and one that lawmakers have indicated they’d support.

That’s a big change from what Indiana lawmakers decided in 2013 and 2014, when they voted overwhelmingly to leave Common Core and its associated PARCC test.

“There’s no question that under current state law we have the flexibility (to use other questions or our own),” said Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, a panel member and leader of the House Education Committee. “You can use other products that are out there. PARCC, Smarter Balanced all are selling bits and pieces.”

Behning also said federal testing requirements could change under the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. For example, states might have more freedom to create innovative testing models like New Hampshire’s project-based local exams, which Behning has said he might support. Those tests, however, are expensive to create and take years to develop.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Ayana Wilson-Coles, a teacher in Pike Township, were the only two panel members who voted against the plan. Ritz has called for a completely different kind of test that would be given in multiple parts throughout the year and rely heavily on computer-based technology. She says such a test would be more helpful to educators and students.

The committee made no move to address the state’s third grade reading test, which is currently given in addition to ISTEP.

In order to graduate, students would still be expected to pass tests in English and math. The state would, for the first time, pay for students to take a college or a career readiness test, such as the SAT, ACT or military entrance exam.

The recommendations next go to the legislature, which goes into session in January. But lawmakers are not required to follow them. Behning wasn’t specific about how the panel’s work might be used in a future bill.

“We haven’t discussed it,” Behning said. “There’s no question I’ll probably have some language (for a bill), yes, at some point in time.”

Testing Testing

Indianapolis charter high schools rank near the bottom on the 2016 ISTEP

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Find our all our stories and databases on the 2016 ISTEP test results, as well as other testing coverage, here.

Of the Indianapolis public high schools that saw the lowest ISTEP passing rates this year, most were charter schools, including some that were taken over by the state years ago for consistently low test scores.

High schoolers took the ISTEP for the first time last spring rather than subject-specific exams in Algebra I, freshman English and biology. The inaugural high school ISTEP, which was given to 10th-graders in math and English, didn’t go well for many schools across the state. When the results were released last week, only 32.2 percent of Hoosier students passed both exams.

The scores were even lower for some charter high schools in Marion County including Hoosier Academy’s hybrid virtual school. Not a single student passed both exams at the school, where students have the option of working from home or in a school building.

Scores also bottomed out at Carpe Diem Shadeland charter high school, which was temporarily closed in August due to low enrollment. The students were merged with those at Carpe Diem’s Meridian campus. The school was one of three high schools run by the Carpe Diem charter network that ranked among the worst performing high schools in the county.

These are the 10 Marion County public high schools with the lowest ISTEP passing rates. Chalkbeat included demographic information about the schools since research shows that schools with more white and affluent students tend to do better on standardized tests because of biases in the way tests are created and different levels of resources at schools attended by lower-income kids.

Howe High School. This former IPS school has been managed by the Florida-based for-profit Charter Schools USA since the school was taken over by the state in 2012 after years of low test scores. This year, just 5.9 percent of students passed both ISTEP exams.

Demographics:

  • 53.5 black, 31 percent white, 8.2 percent Hispanic, 7.1 percent multiracial
  • Data is not available on the percent of students who qualify for meal assistance.

Carpe Diem Meridian. At this charter school, 5.9 percent of students passed both tests.Demographics:

  • 69.6 percent black, 20.6 percent white, 5.2 percent multiracial, 4.1 percent Hispanic.
  • 69.6 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.

Arlington High School. This IPS school, which was returned to the district last year after the Tindley charter network declined to continue managing it, saw 5.1 percent of students pass both exams.

Demographics:

  • 86.5 percent black, 7.2 percent Hispanic, 3.7 percent white, 2.6 percent multiracial.
  • 61.2 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.

George Washington High School. At this IPS school, 4.9 percent of kids passed the two tests.

Demographics:

  • 34.5 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic, 28.3 percent white, 4.9 multiracial.
  • 71.9 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.

Carpe Diem Northwest. Only 4.5 percent of students passed the test at this charter high school.

Demographics:

  • 67.2 black, 15.6 Hispanic, 9.4 percent white, 6.3 percent multiracial, 1.6 percent Asian.
  • 84.4 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.

Northwest High School. The IPS school saw 4.3 percent of students pass both tests.

Demographics:

  • 58.3 percent black, 29.7 percent Hispanic, 6.7 percent white, 2.6 percent Asian, 2.4 percent multiracial.
  • 63 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.

Manual High School. At this charter high school, which like Howe, has been managed by the Florida-based Charter Schools USA network since it was taken over by the state in 2012, just

3.8 percent of students passed the two exams.

Demographics:

  • 55.3 white, 23.1 black, 12.2 Hispanic, 7.7 multiracial, 1.7 percent Asian.
  • Data is not available on the percent of students who qualify for meal assistance.

John Marshall High School. At this IPS school 2 percent students passed both the two tests.

Demographics:

  • 75.9 percent black, 13.1 percent Hispanic, 8.2 percent white, 2.2 percent multiracial.
  • 65.5 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.

Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis. At this hybrid virtual charter school, no students passed both ISTEP exams.

Demographics:

  • 72.1 percent white, 20.8 percent black, 3.8 percent multiracial, 1.7 percent Hispanic.
  • 19.6 percent of students qualify for meal assistance.

Carpe Diem Shadeland. No students passed ISTEP at this charter school, which was closed by the state in August.

Demographics:

  • 73.9 percent black, 15.9 percent white, 4.3 percent multiracial, 2.9 percent Asian, 2.9 percent Hispanic.
  • 81.1 percent percent of students qualify for meal assistance.