Denver should scrap its school ratings and use state’s version instead, committee says

A committee tasked with reimagining Denver’s controversial school rating system voted Wednesday night in favor of using the state’s school rating system instead.

That’s significant because Denver Public Schools has long had its own, more nuanced school rating system, called the School Performance Framework. In fact, Denver’s system predates the state system, which is used by every other school district in Colorado.

Denver’s rating system has been an integral part of its approach to school improvement. The district has in the past used the ratings to identify low-performing schools for closure or replacement, a strategy that made it an exemplar for a certain brand of education reform.

Abandoning its rating system would likely be seen as a step away from that strategy. Denver schools would still be rated, but the ratings would come from the state, not the district. And low-rated schools could still face consequences from the state or the district, though the Denver school board has recently softened its approach to dealing with struggling schools.

Parents, teachers, and community members have long expressed concerns that Denver’s school rating system is too complicated, too ever-changing, and too expensive to run. The state calculates its school ratings at no cost to individual school districts.

Wednesday’s vote doesn’t mean Denver’s school rating system is definitely scrapped, although it is a step in that direction. The committee’s final recommendation isn’t due to the Denver school board until April or May. And the school board will ultimately make the decision.

An election in November handed control of the board to members backed by the Denver teachers union, which has called to discontinue the district’s rating system.

The 30-person committee predates the election. It has been meeting since August and its members include parents and educators who represent both district-run and charter schools.

Jennifer Holladay, who oversees the district’s rating system, said the committee has been studying the differences between Denver’s rating system and the state’s rating system, which is also called the School Performance Framework, or SPF.

Both systems rely heavily on standardized test scores, but Denver’s system includes more additional factors than does the state system. Denver also gives more weight to students’ academic growth, or how much students’ scores improve year-to-year, than the state does.

“It eventually got to the point where the committee was like, ‘We feel we need to call the question: Would it be simpler for us to use the state SPF as an academic baseline?’” Holladay said.

The answer for the committee was yes. In an electronic vote, 75% of committee members at Wednesday’s meeting voted to recommend the district use the state’s rating system, she said.

Jessica Schneider, a teacher at Noel Community Arts School in far northeast Denver, voted in favor of using the state system. She said cost was a big factor for her.

It doesn’t make sense, Schneider said, that Denver is “investing however many thousands of dollars we invest to look at test scores the state is already looking at.”

District records show Denver spends about $900,000 per year to produce its own school ratings.

Schneider said she and the other teachers on the committee also discussed how the state rating system is always going to exist, regardless of whether Denver has its own.

“We’re never going to get away from it, so we might as well adopt it as our own,” she said.

But the committee seems eager to maintain Denver’s focus on equity and school climate.

Currently, Denver’s rating system includes the results of parent and student surveys that ask about school climate and culture. Denver also takes into account test score gaps between groups of students. Schools where white students score high but black students don’t, for example, can’t earn top ratings under Denver’s rationale that they aren’t serving all students well.

Holladay said the committee is brainstorming ways to measure equity and communicate that to parents. The committee is also discussing how to relay information about schools that isn’t currently included in the rating system but is important to families, such as whether a school offers transportation or sports teams, or whether it has full-time mental health workers.

A move to the state school rating system likely wouldn’t please everyone, especially those who believe how much students learn in a year is a more accurate measure of school quality than are raw test scores, which tend to be closely tied to family income.