feeling blue

Fewer Denver schools earn top ratings after switch to tougher state tests

Preschoolers at Trevista at Horace Mann perform a dance before the district's news conference Thursday (photo by Melanie Asmar).

Fewer Denver schools earned the top two ratings this year on the school district’s color-coded scale than the last time it issued ratings in 2014, according to results released Thursday.

The results push Denver Public Schools further away from its ambitious goal for 80 percent of its students to attend a high-performing school by the year 2020.

About half of all schools are “blue” or “green” this year, the highest ratings on the five-color scale. That is a roughly 10 percent decrease from 2014, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. The number of blue schools dropped from 27 in 2014 to 12 this year.

Schools were not rated in 2015 because of a switch in state tests. The scores from those tests count for a big part of a school’s rating.

Boasberg said the drops were due in large part to that switch. The new English and math tests, known as PARCC, are tougher. Students across the state, and in Denver, scored lower than on previous tests, which Boasberg said drove many ratings down.

In all, 40 percent of DPS schools dropped at least one color rating, according to a Chalkbeat analysis that didn’t include the district’s alternative schools or early education centers.

Six of the 10 highest ranked schools on this year’s ratings are charter schools, including four campuses of the homegrown DSST network, a KIPP school and a University Prep school. Four of the six serve a higher proportion of low-income students than the district average, data show.

The district-run schools that earned the highest rankings on the color-coded scale — Steck Elementary School, Slavens K-8 School and Cory Elementary School — predominantly enroll higher-income students and mostly students from within their neighborhood boundaries.

Understanding the SPF
Check out our guide to figuring out Denver’s color-coded system.

The district’s color-coded rating system is called the School Performance Framework, or SPF. Each school’s rating is based on several factors, including state test scores and academic growth, which measures how much students’ scores improved compared to their peers.

Schools are awarded points based on those factors — and the total number of points earned puts them in one of five color categories: blue, green, yellow, orange or red.

Research has shown families rely on the ratings to choose schools for their children. The ratings also impact teacher pay and whether struggling schools receive extra funding to help boost performance. DPS also uses the ratings to decide whether to close low-performing schools.

District officials confirmed to Chalkbeat that four schools face possible closure based on the latest ratings under a policy that will be put into practice this school year. (Read our story here).

At a press conference Wednesday in the library of Trevista at Horace Mann, a northwest Denver elementary school whose rating improved from orange to green, Boasberg said the district long expected many schools’ ratings to go in the opposite direction this year due to the rigor of the new state tests. He said officials were aware of that when they set their high-reaching goals.

“We knew the new assessments would be at a more challenging and complex level — and appropriately so,” Boasberg said. He added that “the results released today highlight that need for us to continue to work hard together and accelerate growth for our kids.”

The number of schools that dropped a color rating would have been slightly higher had the district not lowered the bar on one key measure last week in a last-minute decision. In response to concerns from school leaders, officials lowered the percentage of students who had to meet or exceed expectations on most PARCC tests for a school to be blue or green.

Not all school leaders favored the change. Chris Gibbons, the founder and CEO of charter school network STRIVE Preparatory Schools, wrote in a letter Thursday to his school community that he was disappointed the district lowered that bar.

“Our families, communities, and schools deserve a clear and consistent quality standard,” Gibbons wrote. “The perception and the reality that we are working toward a moving target erodes confidence in the measure and limits the capacity for a school community to clearly understand its data and work urgently on areas of improvement.”

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of the DSST charter school network, which is the district’s largest, echoed Gibbons. “We were disappointed that cut scores were lowered because it doesn’t recognize that we are trying to set the bar for our kids at a level they need to achieve,” he said.

By 2018, the district plans to increase the percentage of students who must meet or exceed expectations on state tests to 50 percent for schools to earn a blue or green rating.

“We believe very strongly in the importance of ensuring we have a high bar for our kids and working together as a community to achieve that higher bar,” Boasberg said.

For the first time this year, the DPS School Performance Framework includes an “equity indicator” that more explicitly measures how well schools are serving students of color, low-income students, special education students and English language learners. In part, it looks at gaps between students in those groups and students not in those groups — for example, the difference in the state test scores of white students and students of color.

A school’s equity rating won’t count this year toward its overall rating. But next year, Boasberg said, schools will have to score green or higher on equity to be rated blue or green overall.

“Our commitment is to make sure all of our kids succeed. It’s fundamentally a civil rights mission,” Boasberg said. Districtwide, state test results show students from disadvantaged backgrounds are progressing far slower than their more privileged peers. “It’s important we acknowledge we’re not making the progress we need to,” he added.

All of this year’s blue schools had equity ratings of green or higher. But several green schools did not, including Park Hill Elementary and Denver Discovery School, which were red on equity.

The district’s highest-rated school, DSST: College View High, was blue on equity. Kurtz, the DSST CEO, said serving a diverse population has always been a core goal.

“We believe that’s critical, not just for kids’ academic success, but in 2016, in the world we live in today, we think it’s one of the most critical things schooling can do for young people,” he said.

Search this year’s school ratings here: 

enrollment zones

Efforts to better integrate Denver middle schools proving tough, analysis finds

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Students at Skinner Middle School in 2011, before the enrollment zone was put in place.

Enlarging Denver’s middle school boundaries has not decreased school segregation as much as hoped, according to a new district analysis.

Denver Public Schools created its first “enrollment zone” six years ago. The idea was that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them would increase integration in a gentrifying city where many neighborhoods are segregated. The district now has 11 zones all over the city, from the far northeast to the southwest.

But district officials say they’ve found it difficult to fight against housing patterns.

“Despite drawing larger enrollment circles, several zones are still serving relatively homogenous neighborhoods,” Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services, told school board members at a meeting Monday.

For example, just 2 percent of the students who live in the West Denver middle school enrollment zone are white, making racial integration nearly impossible. Eighty-eight percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, which poses problems for economic integration, too.

The analysis uses a “segregation index” developed by a Duke University professor to examine whether grouping middle schools into enrollment zones made them more integrated.

The index looks at the demographic makeup of a geographic area — in this case, one of DPS’s seven middle school zones — and compares it to the makeup of the schools in the zone.

If the zone is home to 40 percent white students and 60 percent non-white students, the average white student in the zone would have to attend school with 60 percent non-white peers for the zone to be considered completely desegregated.

The index uses a scale from 0 (completely desegregated) to 1 (completely segregated). Eschbacher and his team applied the index to the schools in the zone before the zone was created and after to see if the ratings moved closer to 0, or completely desegregated — or whether, despite the district’s best efforts, they crept closer to 1.

In most cases, the movement in either direction was minimal.

In the Northwest Denver zone, where 64 percent of students are Latino and 30 percent are white, the racial segregation index went from .11 before the zone was put in place to .12 after.

The zone was created in 2015 and includes district-run Skinner Middle School, STRIVE Prep Sunnyside charter school, Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School and Bryant Webster, a district-run dual-language school that serves preschool through eighth grade.

Students who live in zones are encouraged to fill out a choice form — the same one used by all DPS kids — listing their preferred schools. Those who don’t are assigned to one of the schools.

The district’s analysis notes that given its demographics, the northwest middle school zone has the potential for racial integration. But that’s not happening, at least in sixth grade.

Of the 98 white sixth-graders who live in the zone, 54 attend Skinner, which accepted all students who listed it as their first preference in the first round of the choice process this year. The other 44 attend a school outside the zone. Not a single white sixth-grader who lives in the zone goes to STRIVE or Bryant Webster.

That imbalance has also caused increasing economic segregation. Before the zone, the segregation index for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, was .09. It’s now .12, which the analysis attributes to the fact that higher-income families are choosing Skinner. Fifty-six percent of sixth-graders get subsidized lunches at Skinner, compared to 91 percent at Bryant Webster and 92 percent at STRIVE, according to the analysis.

The middle school zone that has come closest to the district’s goal is the zone for Greater Park Hill/Stapleton, which encompasses two very different neighborhoods. The growing Stapleton neighborhood is less racially diverse and more affluent than Park Hill.

Created in 2013 after the closure of low-performing Smiley Middle School, the zone includes five middle schools: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, William “Bill” Roberts, which serves students in preschool through eighth grade, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

While the index for racial segregation has stayed steady at .16, the index for economic segregation has gone from .26 in 2012 to .13 in 2016, meaning it’s now more integrated.

While the average percentage of students in the zone who qualify for subsidized lunches dropped from 58 percent to 36 percent in that time as Stapleton continued to develop, Superintendent Tom Boasberg told the school board he considers the halving of the index a win.

“At a time when we saw greater concentrations of middle- and high-income families, our segregation index has gone down,” he said. “I think the enrollment zone made a real difference.”

However, some board members pointed out there could have been other factors at play. Since 2012, two schools in the zone — Smiley and Venture Prep Middle School — closed and two other schools — DSST: Conservatory Green and Denver Discovery School — opened.

Board members acknowledged the mixed success of the zones — and the challenges presented by a gentrifying city in which skyrocketing housing prices have pushed some low-income families out and concentrated many of those who remain in certain neighborhoods.

“I’m struggling with the pursuit of integrated schools and how we balance that with the realities of what our city looks like,” said board president Anne Rowe.

Board member Happy Haynes agreed. “We all had high hopes for using the zones, particularly in middle schools, to better balance, better integrate our schools,” she said.

“What isn’t within our power is the makeup of the neighborhood,” she added. “And so we’re struggling with how much effect we’ve actually had using the best strategies that we can.”

At the end of the discussion, Boasberg pledged the district would continue working on the issue, inviting board members’ thoughts on what DPS could do better or differently.

spotlighting disparities

Which Denver schools are falling short on the school district’s new equity rating?

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo. Lincoln Elementary got a high equity rating.

Two-dozen Denver schools this year earned the lowest possible score on a new school district measure meant to gauge how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students.

The schools run the gamut from long-standing traditional schools to newer charter schools, from schools that serve a homogenous student population to those that are more integrated, and from highly rated schools to some of Denver Public Schools’ most struggling.

The new measure — called the equity indicator — is part of DPS’s color-coded school rating system. It takes into account the test scores and graduation rates of students of color, low-income students, English language learners and special education students.

The district added it to shine an expository light on educational disparities, officials said.

“Our commitment is to make sure all of our kids succeed,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a press conference last month when the scores were released. “It’s fundamentally a civil rights mission we have for the success of our kids.”

Schools this year got an equity rating along the same scale used for overall ratings: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange or red (the lowest). (See individual school ratings in our database below.) Since it was new, the equity rating didn’t count toward the overall rating.

But next year, schools will have to score green or above on equity to be green or blue overall, Boasberg said. The district uses school ratings to help make several important decisions, including whether to close schools that are persistently low-performing.

Of the 82 DPS schools that were blue or green overall this year, 33 were below green on equity.

Most of those 33 schools were yellow on equity, just one color rating below where they’d need to be. But three schools that were green overall were red on equity: Park Hill Elementary, Denver Discovery School and Denver Montessori Junior High.

Katy Myers, principal of Denver Montessori, said the school is taking the rating seriously.

“The reason why people work here is to create an authentic Montessori adolescent program that reaches all students,” she said. “For DPS to help us know the students we’re reaching and the students we’re not reaching is great information for us.”

HOW IS THE RATING CALCULATED?
There are several factors that go into a school’s equity rating. They include:
  • The percentages of low-income students, English language learners and students of color who met or exceeded expectations on state standardized tests. The state tests include the English and math PARCC tests, plus state science tests.
  • How much academic growth low-income students, English language learners and students of color showed on state tests. Academic growth measures how much students learn year to year.
  • The gaps between how students in those groups and students not in those groups did.
  • The performance and growth of a school’s special education students on state tests compared to the performance and growth of students with disabilities statewide.
  • The percentage of English language learners considered “on track” toward English language proficiency as measured by a test called ACCESS. And whether English language learners are showing the amount of academic growth the district expects.
  • For high schools, the graduation rates for English language learners, low-income students and students of color. And how the graduation rate for a school’s special education students compares to the statewide graduation rate for special education students.

Opened four years ago, the school serves as the secondary school for Denver’s four Montessori elementaries. Last year, 70 percent of students were kids of color, 44 percent were low-income, 19 percent were English language learners and 13 percent were special education students.

In the wake of the rating, Myers said the school is working on improving “the basics: pre-teaching, re-teaching and checks for understanding. If there’s more teaching that needs to happen, that’s easy for us to do within our schedule.”

Ken Burdette, principal at Park Hill Elementary, said that while he agrees DPS should focus on equity, he’s worried his school’s red rating doesn’t paint an accurate picture. For example, he said, although white students are making faster academic progress than students of color at Park Hill, both groups are outpacing district averages on state tests.

“All students are learning,” Burdette said. “They’re not all learning at the same rate.”

Last year, 37 percent of Park Hill students were kids of color, 24 percent were low-income, 5 percent were English language learners and 10 percent were special education students.

Districtwide, students with more privilege are making faster progress on state tests than those from disadvantaged backgrounds — which has widened so-called achievement gaps. Boasberg said the district’s goal “is that everyone gains.”

“We want to be intentional about being clear where we are making progress and where we’re not making the progress we need to,” he said, “and provide schools with the support they need to accelerate across the community our work in closing the gaps.”

Successes and challenges

Demographics play a role in what a school’s equity rating means.

Some of the 24 schools that were red on equity serve a fairly homogenous student population. (That number does not include alternative or early education schools.) West Leadership Academy, one of several smaller high schools located in the former West High, is an example. Last year, 97 percent of students were low-income, 98 percent were students of color and 79 percent were English language learners.

In cases like that, Boasberg said, the school may not have enough affluent, white, native English speakers to make comparisons. Thus the equity rating will be less a measure of a school’s achievement gaps and more a measure of students’ raw test scores and growth.

In schools with more integrated student populations, the equity rating takes those gaps into account. In the past, a school where affluent students were doing well but low-income students were not might still get a good overall rating because the high scores of the affluent students would mask the lower scores of the students living in poverty, Boasberg said.

Requiring schools to be at least green on equity in order to be blue or green overall will make it impossible to hide those disparities any longer, he said.

The Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a four-year-old elementary charter school located in the district’s headquarters, is more integrated than many DPS schools. Last year, 30 percent of students were low-income, 38 percent were students of color, 4 percent were English language learners and 8 percent were special education students.

While the school earned a yellow rating overall this year, it was red on equity.

Executive Director Scott Mengel said his staff was “totally disappointed” by the rating. But even before it came out, he said the school was working to address challenges such as a weakness in math by creating a team of specialists to work with small groups of students to boost performance. Teachers have also begun looking more closely at how certain groups of students — including low-income kids and students of color — are progressing, he said.

At the same time, Mengel is taking pride in another set of data: one that shows students report feeling engaged, supported and safe. Those are important factors for an expeditionary learning school, he said, which aims to grow students’ character alongside their academics.

“None of those are like an excuse in any way,” Mengel said. “But we believe those things are foundational to the long-term academic success kids will enjoy.”

Some of the district’s more integrated schools got high equity ratings, including Southmoor Elementary, High Tech Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and East High.

Thomas Jefferson High, which was green overall and green on equity, is among the most integrated: 52 percent of students last year were low-income, 61 percent were students of color, 25 percent were English language learners and 16 percent were special education students.

Principal Mike Christoff said the school has focused on mainstreaming special education students in regular classes. It also used grant money to increase the number of students enrolled in rigorous Advanced Placement classes — and separately got rid of tracking for freshman English classes so that all ninth-grade students take honors English.

In addition, Christoff said his staff makes sure every one of its English language learners is enrolled in an English language development course. The school also pays teachers to tutor after school four days a week and releases kids 40 minutes early on Wednesdays so they can get extra help without worrying about missing sports practice or the bus.

“We really try to push a family atmosphere, a family mentality and take care of each other, know each other and know about the lives of our kids,” Christoff said.

The meaning of equity

Most of the factors that go into the equity rating (see box) are not new. According to Boasberg, they’ve been part of a school’s overall rating since the district introduced its color-coded system a decade ago.

What’s new is that the district is pulling them out into their own separate category, he said. Even so, Boasberg emphasized that each factor will only count once toward a school’s overall rating.

Many other states and school districts factor achievement gaps and similar measures into school ratings, experts said. While they applauded Denver’s effort to highlight inequities, some criticized the district’s decision focus on test scores and graduation rates.

Including other factors — such as whether schools disproportionately suspend students of color, translate information for families into multiple languages or make college-level courses available to all students — would give a more accurate picture of equity, they said.

“Test scores have become a reality in our society,” said Philip Bernhardt, the department chair of secondary/K-12 education at Denver’s Metropolitan State University and a DPS parent. “But are there not five or six other nuanced ways we could think about equity?”

Boasberg said the district chose the factors it did to allow for fair comparisons across all types of schools. But that’s not to say other factors aren’t important, too, he said.

“There are dozens of different measures that are important,” Boasberg said. “But at the same time, our (rating system) is already quite comprehensive. … How many different data inputs do you put in (before) it becomes so complicated that it becomes difficult to comprehend?”