Denver Public Schools: Score change that sealed fate of Gilpin Montessori School “very normal”

The pushback against the Denver school board’s decision to close Gilpin Montessori School has largely hinged on one factor Gilpin supporters deem suspicious: That its score on a quality review was altered, causing the school to be eligible for closure under a new district policy.

But records provided by Denver Public Schools show that scores at the majority of schools that received reviews were altered. District officials said those changes are a routine part of the process conducted by the third-party vendor that DPS hired to do the reviews.

“The evidence is very clear that what happened with Gilpin is a very normal and customary part of the school review process,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview.

A vocal group of Gilpin parents and community members don’t think so. They still suspect Gilpin’s score was wrongfully altered because DPS wanted to close the school.

The school’s supporters are trying to build a groundswell of opposition to the closure decision and have asked the school board to reverse it at Thursday night’s board meeting. Thus far, the board has given no indication that it plans to do so. Boasberg is scheduled to address questions about the closure during his regularly scheduled superintendent’s report.

The score changes at issue occurred during a quality assurance process conducted by the third-party vendor, a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks, according to a memo prepared by the district this week for the school board and provided to Chalkbeat.

That process involves comparing scores across schools “to ensure consistency and accuracy in how ratings are applied,” the memo says. Even though DPS employees are part of the team that visits schools and reviews them, the memo says the schools’ ratings — and any changes made to them — are entirely decisions made by SchoolWorks.

Scores for 13 of the 16 DPS schools that received quality reviews this past fall were changed during the quality assurance process, the memo says. In some instances, the changes caused a school’s final score to increase. In others, they caused a decrease.

In Gilpin’s case, its scores were altered in two of the 10 review categories. In one category, its score was raised from two out of four points to three out of four points. In another category, its score was lowered from two points to one point. The latter change is what has caused concern among Gilpin parents and other supporters of the northeast Denver elementary school.

To be eligible for closure under the district’s new school closure policy, a school must score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on its review. A score of “1” in any of the 10 review categories also triggers a closure recommendation under the policy.

Gilpin’s final score was 24 points. It received one “1” score — and that was in the category that was altered. The school board voted last month to close Gilpin and two other low-performing schools based on their quality review scores, a history of poor test scores and lagging academic growth.

Gilpin supporters are dubious about the score decrease for two reasons. According to their examination of SchoolWorks’ scoring rubric and their comparison of how Gilpin performed in that category relative to other DPS schools, they say the score should be a “2,” not a “1.”

The category measures how well teachers assess students’ “mastery of key skills and concepts” and use test data to adjust their instruction and provide students with feedback. Gilpin’s review notes that teachers “use a variety of in-class assessment strategies to reveal students’ thinking about learning goals” but that “timely, frequent, specific feedback is inconsistently provided.”

Since those observations are not entirely negative but rather show that at least some teachers were using those strategies when the review team visited, the score should be a “2,” says Gilpin parent Alison Wadle, who has studied SchoolWorks’ scoring rubric.

Furthermore, the parents claim that emails between SchoolWorks staff and DPS staff obtained in an open records request show that Gilpin’s score in that category was lowered a week after the other adjustments were made, making it appear like a last-minute change.

“It was an adjustment that came after, with no explanation,” Wadle says. “… When there’s a change from passing to non-passing at the last minute, isn’t that worth discussing?”

Boasberg admits that the district could have done a better job of explaining SchoolWorks’ process to parents and community members. He said the score changes didn’t come as a surprise to DPS staff who’ve worked with SchoolWorks in the past, but he understands how alterations could appear concerning to those unfamiliar with the process.

“That’s a learning we got from this: that even if we use a third-party, we need to be clear on how that third-party’s process works,” he said.

“As challenging as it is for a community to see, ‘Oh my goodness, if it wasn’t for this rating change, something else might have occurred,’” not having a quality assurance process would be even more challenging, Boasberg added. “It’s not just a customary part but an essential and healthy part of the process to get the fairest picture possible.”

Gilpin is slated to close at the end of this school year. DPS announced last week a new option for students who want to continue a Montessori education.