Denver board weighs in on proposed changes to school rating system

Denver school board members found a lot to question in the district’s framework for reporting school performance at a board session on Monday.

The session was the last step in a community outreach and polling process that will drive changes to the district’s School Performance Framework (SPF) reports, which are released each fall. The color-coded reports, which rank schools from red (low) to blue (high), are used both in accountability decisions and in informing parents about schools.

The changes would not affect the rankings for an overwhelming majority of Denver’s schools. Of those affected, 23, including 17 elementary schools, would see their ranking drop. Six schools would see their ranking increase.

By and large, board members agreed with the district’s proposals, which included more emphasis on kindergarten through third grade and on students’ performance on tests, but raised worries about the timeline for changes and the objectivity of the measures the board selected.

“What fundamental changes does [the change to the SPF] drive inside the building?” asked Landri Taylor, the representative for northeast Denver. “They need to happen now before school starts.”

But they urged that communicating the changes to the school and the public was going to be a tricky task.

“Pretty intensive communication with the schools being adjusted will be pretty important,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, the representative for southwest Denver.

Not tough enough

The biggest change the district is proposing is to reduce the historical emphasis on students’ growth and place more weight on how well students perform on state tests. That decision concerned board members, who worried that the change could discourage teachers working with students who come in behind.

But they also worried that the current system covered up low test scores with high growth. Members focused particularly on schools ranked as green, which indicates that the school “meets expectations,” but that still post low test scores.

“What does green actually mean?” said Anne Rowe. Rowe represents southeast Denver. “We need to be really thoughtful about what we mean when we say [that a school is] green.”

Rowe said that some green schools are actually two schools, one that’s “blue” or high-performing for affluent students and one that’s “orange” for their less affluent peers.

Other members were more concerned with the district’s high performers.

“You give schools points for moving kids from partially proficient to proficient, but not from proficient to advanced,” said member Mike Johnson, who represents central Denver.

Johnson and others pushed district officials to consider a way to look at how much the district’s higher achieving students are doing as well as a closer look at how well schools are actually doing at getting students to proficiency.

“We’re going to need a SPF that raises the bar,” said board president Happy Haynes. Right now, she said, there is no incentive for the district’s top-performing schools to do better. “What we’re saying is if you’re green or blue, stay right where you’re at. What we need is a way to say don’t coast.”

Another change district officials are proposing is using early learning assessments required under the state’s early literacy act to measure how schools are doing in kindergarten through third grade. The greater focus on younger grades was popular with board members but Haynes acknowledged concerns about using a tool intended for teachers’ diagnostic use as a school accountability measure.

District officials said the tests were the only metrics available for all schools, including charters but that they they were taking steps to ensure the assessments, which are administered by teachers, are objective.

Lots of questions, few answers

Although district officials were seeking feedback on two specific ideas, the meeting also proved an opportunity for board members to raise a host of other changes they would also like to see, including tougher standards and clearer communication about what a school’s report means.

At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, board members drew up a list of questions to answer during the discussion, including:

  • We’re going to change the SPF for a reason. What does that mean we are going to do differently because of that change?
  • We need to be very clear on what the purpose of SPF. What is used for? What it isn’t used for? Where is it misused?
  • How does the SPF guide achievement for all students?
  • How do we align the annual goals we’re establishing with Denver Plan with the SPF?

By the meeting’s conclusion, many of those questions still lingered unanswered and more had been added on topics ranging from parent engagements to how parents interpret the reports.

Board members urged the district to reconsider how school rankings are visually presented, minimizing the overall rating and highlighting aspects like status scores, student growth and achievement gaps.

The visual impacts of the way the reports are presented could impact schools and the communities they serve.

“When they tag a school as a red school, they tag that community as a red community,” said Taylor. He said that could have impacts both on morale and on housing values, which can depend in part on school quality.

In an interview following the meeting, Johnson said few parents read beyond the school’s ranking to look at aspects that could impact their student’s learning.

“A lot of people look just at that and not at the stuff further down,” he said. “I think we probably have to have an overall category but change the presentation so it isn’t the first thing you saw.”

It’s a suggestion district officials say they are open to.

“If a school is green or blue overall but has really large achievement gaps, that should be visible to parents,” said Grant Guyer, the district’s executive director of assessments, in an interview with Chalkbeat after the meeting.

He and other district officials will take it into consideration as they move forward on the changes to the SPF. Guyer plans to spend the month of April meeting with district leaders to decide on what exactly those changes should look like.

“People have very strong opinions about what the SPF should and should not be,” said Guyer. “We look for as much consensus among opinions as possible.”