Colorado releases school ratings amid ongoing debate about how to measure performance

Colorado school ratings finalized Wednesday show that slightly fewer schools this year earned one of the two lowest ratings.

Those that did — 154 schools serving almost 70,000 students — have an unwelcome status that qualifies them for additional assistance and advice from state education officials but also opens them up to outside intervention if they don’t improve.

That’s already been the case for seven schools and one school district, Adams 14 based in Commerce City, operating under state-mandated improvement plans. The State Board of Education plans hearings in January and February for four more schools, including, for the first time, two in Denver: Manual High School and Abraham Lincoln High School.

The State Board of Education approved final ratings under the School Performance Framework Wednesday after considering appeals, including an unsuccessful effort by Denver Public Schools to increase Lincoln’s rating.

There is an ongoing debate about the purpose and meaning of school ratings. Despite significant pushback from districts and teachers unions, the State Board of Education approved new, more rigorous ratings earlier this year that will start to be applied to schools in 2021. Hundreds of schools could see their ratings decline under the new criteria.

Denver Public Schools, which issues its own ratings based on a different formula, has convened a task force to reexamine how it decides what makes a school “quality.” Denver usually asks the state to use its rating in place of the state rating, a change that often results in Denver schools’ ratings getting bumped down.

A recent Chalkbeat investigation into the popular GreatSchools site — which independently rates schools, based in part on state test results — highlighted the way those ratings tend to favor whiter, more affluent schools, even more so than state ratings that rely on the same test data but weight it differently.

State board member Joyce Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, said she continues to question whether rating schools actually helps them improve.

“Are we spinning our wheels?” she asked. “It seems we’re spending a lot of effort on something that isn’t getting to the root of what we want to do.”

State education officials said they have seen schools and districts improve under the current system but noted that it is a slow process in which some schools decline even as others rise in the rankings.

Roughly 72% of Colorado schools kept the same rating they had last year, while 13% of schools improved at least one level and 12.9% declined at least one level.

All public schools receive a state rating, known as the School Performance Framework report, each year. It’s based largely on student scores on the state’s English and math tests. Student growth, or how much students learn year-to-year compared with peers with similar results on state tests, carries more weight than proficiency, or how well students did on the test. High school graduation and dropout rates are also factored in.

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest).

Schools and districts that have one of the lower two ratings are placed on a watch list and have five years to improve before facing state intervention. Schools on the list are eligible for grants for leadership training and help from outside consultants, but if change doesn’t come fast enough, the state could hand over control to an external manager, require conversion to a charter, or close schools.

Schools have to show at least two years of steady improvement to come off the watch list.

The large majority of Colorado students, almost 800,000 of them, attend schools with one of the top two ratings. This year 68.6% of schools have the top rating, slightly more than last year, while another 21.6% have the second highest rating. Another 8.4%, slightly less than last year, earned one of the bottom two ratings that place them on the performance watch list, often called “the accountability clock.” A small percentage closed or had insufficient data to receive a rating.

According to Colorado Department of Education data, just half of online schools earned the top rating, and a slightly larger share are on the performance watch list, compared with traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

The state also broke out data for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. These schools might be accountable to the local school district that authorized them or to the state Charter School Institute. A similar portion of charter schools earned the top rating, compared with district-run schools. Slightly more charter schools earned the two lowest ratings.

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