A ‘mixed bag’ — again — for test scores at Colorado innovation schools, new report finds

A science classroom.
About half of Colorado's innovation schools are in Denver, including Kepner Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

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For at least the third time in the 15 years since Colorado lawmakers created them, innovation schools have gotten middling marks in a new report meant to measure whether freeing the schools from bureaucracy boosts student test scores.

The report by the Keystone Policy Center found that students who attend innovation schools did no better on state math and literacy tests last spring — and, in many cases, performed worse — than students who attend traditional district-run schools and independent charter schools. The report did find some bright spots, such as students of color performing better on some tests and higher scores in Denver’s innovation zones, which have been controversial.

State policymakers had hoped innovation would be an effective strategy for turning around low-performing schools. That hasn’t necessarily turned out to be the case, as indicated by the report’s title: “A Decidedly Mixed Bag.”

Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, said there’s nothing particularly new or different about the report’s conclusion.

“What’s different is that this started in 2008, so we’re now 15 years later … and it’s sort of like a, ‘Meh,’” Schoales said in an interview.

On the spectrum of school autonomy, Colorado’s innovation schools fall between district-run schools, which are the least autonomous, and charter schools, which are the most.

Under state law, innovation schools can waive certain rules to do things such as extend the school day or opt out of granting teachers Colorado’s version of tenure. The idea is that giving schools more autonomy allows them the flexibility to better meet students’ needs.

While the report says innovation schools’ academic results last school year were “lackluster,” innovation supporters argue that it’s hard to make generalizations. There are more than 100 innovation schools in Colorado and lots of variation between them, from the population of students they serve to the reasons they sought innovation status.

While some schools wanted the freedom to grow their own vegetables or focus on the arts, others sought innovation status in the hopes of boosting persistently low student test scores.

“Innovation is a strategy that has been used across the state in many different contexts and for many different reasons,” said Bailey Holyfield, executive director of an innovation zone in Denver called the Luminary Learning Network. “As we look at high-level aggregate data, it is unsurprising then in some ways that the data reflects a mixed bag, to quote the author’s title.”

What the report found

At least two other reports, in 2014 and 2019, concluded that innovation schools fared about the same academically as district-run schools.

Those reports were done by different research groups and focused only on Denver, which has more innovation schools than any other district in the state. The Keystone report looks at all innovation schools in Colorado.

Among its conclusions:

  • Overall, fewer students at innovation schools met expectations on state math and literacy tests this past spring than students at district-run or charter schools.
  • But there were some bright spots. For instance, Black and Hispanic students in grades three through eight at innovation schools outperformed Black and Hispanic students at district-run schools on the state literacy test. The same was true for students experiencing poverty at innovation schools on both the literacy and math tests.
  • A “more robust longitudinal study” is needed to figure out whether innovation status is an effective way for a school to boost student test scores. The Colorado State Board of Education has the power to order changes at chronically low-performing schools, and innovation status is considered the least disruptive option. But State Board members have wondered if it works — or if harsher options, such as closure, are warranted.
  • Innovation schools face barriers in being innovative. “At least some evidence exists that district systems may be slow to evolve, if they do at all, and may functionally prevent innovation schools and zones from fully implementing approved autonomies.”
  • Some innovation schools actually aren’t innovative, either because leaders are “simply ‘checking boxes’ that higher-ups want to see” or because higher-ups block ideas they see as too revolutionary. Innovation schools “may not actually be empowered to innovate in deeper ways that might truly transform outcomes for students.”

A zoom in on Denver and innovation zones

Another bright spot in the Keystone report is the academic results of innovation zones. The zones are groups of innovation schools. In some districts, innovation zones are run by district administrators. In Denver Public Schools, the zones are overseen by nonprofit organizations.

The report shows that statewide, innovation zone schools fared better on state tests last spring than did innovation schools that were not in zones.

A separate analysis of Denver data provided to Chalkbeat by Keystone shows the innovation zones in Denver did particularly well, outperforming every other type of school in DPS.

The report comes at a tumultuous time for Denver innovation schools. Of all the districts in Colorado, DPS has most embraced innovation and is home to about half of the state’s innovation schools. But a few years ago, shifting politics led to a backlash of sorts.

In 2022, the Denver school board voted to limit innovation schools’ autonomy in an effort to shore up teacher job protections. All seven board members had been elected with help from the teachers union, which didn’t like that innovation schools could waive parts of its contract.

This year, the school board dissolved one of the district’s three innovation zones. Instead of being overseen by a nonprofit organization, the two schools in that zone, Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools, will now be overseen by the district.

Of the two Denver zones left, one has experienced a string of controversies, including the high-profile firing of a school principal and an investigation into the improper use of seclusion.

That zone, called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, is still in negotiations with the district over the renewal of a plan for how it will operate. Earlier this month, the school board met behind closed doors with the district’s attorney to discuss “legal options” for the zone.

Innovation supporters are hopeful that the election last month of three new school board members perceived as more friendly toward innovation will turn the tide.

“I’m hopeful we are getting to a generally less contentious place where folks doing good work and getting outcomes for kids can keep doing that work,” said Holyfield.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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