More Colorado schools, districts earn higher scores in annual performance ratings

Young students walk through an elementary school hallway.
The Adams 14 school district earned a higher rating this year than last year but remains on a state watchlist. (Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

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More schools and districts scored higher this year on the state’s annual performance ratings than in 2022, according to preliminary ratings released Tuesday by the Colorado Department of Education.

But, similar to trends with state test data, the number of schools and districts with good ratings is still lower than before the pandemic. 

And, although more schools and ratings improved overall, more schools and districts were newly identified as low performing, putting them on the state’s watchlist for low performance.

Colorado issues school performance ratings for every public school and district annually, using state test data, graduation rates, and some post-secondary data such as college enrollment and participation in career education. The highest rating for districts is distinction, while the highest rating for schools is performance, followed by improvement, priority improvement, and lastly, turnaround. By state law, the State Board of Education is required to intervene in schools or districts once they’ve had five consecutive years of one of the two lowest ratings. 

This year’s ratings are the first since 2019 to count for school accountability purposes. Ratings were not issued in 2020 or 2021 due to pandemic testing disruptions, and last year’s ratings were considered advisory. The ratings are preliminary because schools and districts can request the state change the rating taking into account different data. The ratings become final after that process, by December. 

Overall, the Colorado Department of Education reported that 70% of districts and 78% of schools earned ratings of improvement or higher.

Among the state’s 184 school districts and BOCES, three districts earned a turnaround or red rating this year: Centennial R-1, Deer Trail, and East Otero; last year, only one received that rating. BOCES or boards of cooperative educational services are groups of small districts that share resources.

The three districts in turnaround — all serving small rural communities — received their lower ratings due to low test participation. Aurora and Sheridan districts earned priority improvement, the second-to-lowest rating, and are now on the state’s list for low performance. Both have been on the state’s watchlist before

A rating for a school or district can be lowered if the rate of participation, after removing parent excused absences, is below 95% for two or more content areas. Although it’s happened before, it was more common this year for districts or schools to have a rating lowered for low participation. In 2022, since the ratings were advisory, the state waived the participation requirements that could have lowered many ratings.

Adams 14, the one district that was rated turnaround in 2022, moved up to priority improvement. The Adams 14 school district has been rated in the bottom two categories for 10 years and has been ordered to try various improvements, which haven’t been effective. The district is fighting the latest state order to reorganize. The move up doesn’t take it off the state’s watchlist for low performance.

Another district, the 107-student Aguilar district in southern Colorado, which had also been under state orders for years of low performance, did improve enough this year to get off the watchlist.

Two districts, Mesa County Valley School District 51 and Pueblo 60, do not yet have district ratings as the state is recalculating their data and expects to release their ratings next month.

Meanwhile, efforts to change the state’s accountability system are ongoing. Critics say the ratings rely too heavily on standardized test data and are biased against districts with high percentages of students from low-income families or who are not native English speakers. The legislature has convened a task force to recommend changes to the school ratings system, but any changes likely wouldn’t happen until 2025.

Of 22 districts that earned one of the two lowest ratings, 11 are majority students of color. 

In Denver Public Schools, Colorado’s largest school district, fewer schools earned the top rating this year than last year. But low student participation on state standardized tests could be the reason. Nine schools’ ratings were lowered from performance, signified by the color green, to improvement, or color yellow, due to low test participation.

Those schools include some of DPS’ largest high schools, including East, Northfield, South, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.

More DPS schools earned one of the two lowest ratings this year than last year. But last year’s ratings breakdown was skewed because so many DPS schools — 40 last year compared to just three this year — had insufficient data for the state to calculate a rating.

Six DPS schools this year earned the lowest rating of turnaround. Four are elementary schools, one is an ECE-8 school, and one is a high school. West High, which reopened in 2021 after being closed for low test scores, was bumped down to a red turnaround rating because of low student test participation. The other red Denver schools are: College View Elementary, McGlone Academy, Oakland Elementary, Barnum Elementary, and Academy 360.

Two DPS high schools are under state improvement orders for chronic low performance. Both schools, Abraham Lincoln and Manual, earned the same rating this year as they did last year: priority improvement, signified by the color orange.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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