There will be no such thing as a “blue” or “green” school in Denver next year.

That’s because Denver Public Schools plans to temporarily change the way it evaluates its schools due to changes in the state’s assessment system. But district officials say the changes don’t mean schools are getting a reprieve.  

DPS’s School Performance Framework, or SPF, guides some of the district’s most significant decisions about charter school contracts and interventions in district-run schools, the allocation of financial and staff resources, and more. It also influences employees’ compensation, management, and state accreditation ratings. And it’s one tool parents and teachers can use to compare schools.

Schools are rated, from highest to lowest, blue (for distinguished), green, yellow, orange, and red (accredited on probation).

But in 2015, schools will, for the first time since the framework was created, not receive a single overall rating. Instead, schools will receive ratings in each of several categories.

The district is also temporarily removing several measures — such as how many students move between achievement levels on the tests — that will be impossible to determine accurately because of differences between last year’s standardized tests and this year’s.

Close to 60 percent of the framework is tied to test scores and is therefore affected by the state’s transition from the former TCAP tests to the new CMAS, which includes the PARCC English and math exams.

But Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer, said “We will still be using the SPF to make decisions,” she said, about school closures, turnarounds, and charter school contracts next year.

The district is also planning to make a more permanent set of changes to the SPF, which would kick in for the 2016-17 school year, to reflect ongoing concerns about how accurately the SPF reflects schools’ quality. Starting in 2016, DPS is planning to increase the weight of overall student performance on state tests and reduce the weight of how much academic progress students make on those exams year-over-year.

Changes for 2015

In 2015, schools will get scores in each of the SPF’s categories instead of an overall ranking.

The district’s executive director of assessment, research and evaluation, Grant Guyer, said that the district is not releasing an overall score because of the transition between assessments and the uncertainty about how to measure how much a student learns in a year will be calculated given that change.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 3.46.21 PM
This is what the old School Performance Framework looks like.

The district relies on the state to provide test scores, and it is not yet clear when the Colorado Department of Education will release data from this year’s assessments or how the state will calculate student growth.

The 2015 SPF also won’t include the “Catch-Up” figure, which tracks how many students improve their test scores, or a “Keep-Up” figure, which tracks how many students maintain proficient or advanced scores on the tests, because of difficulties comparing results on last year’s test to this year’s.

This is what next year's SPF will look like.
This is what next year’s SPF will look like.

Guyer said that despite the temporary changes and omissions, the district will still be able to make comparisons between schools. They’ll do that by seeing where schools stand relative to others that were similar to them in years past.

“If we see significant shifts in how schools compare, that would be one example where we’d still potentially intervene,” he said. “We also get plenty of data around attendance, enrollment, student and parent satisfaction.”

Other tweaks for 2015 include the addition of college remediation rates. The district is doing this to align its evaluation tool to its strategic goals and not as a result of shifting assessments. (Check out the proposed changes here.) 

The district plans to reintroduce an overall rating and the omitted numbers in 2016.

More permanent changes

DPS is also planning to make a slate of more permanent changes to the SPF starting in 2016, including re-establishing an overall ratings for schools.

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The 2016 SPF will introduce conditions that schools must meet in order to earn one of the top two ratings, green or blue. For instance, a school might have to show that its students’ test scores are improving (“growth”) and also that they are, overall, strong (“status”) to earn one of the top two scores.  

“We want to be signaling to our staff and our community that a green or blue school is a high-quality school,” Guyer said. In the past, some schools with low overall test scores have been ranked green because of their growth.

District officials and education advocates in the city have been debating the SPF for more than a year. There is still not a clear consensus about the respective roles of academic proficiency and academic growth in determining a school’s quality.

“We want ensure we are not creating a system in which socioeconomic or racial factors are a predictor of SPF rating, while also ensuring that we’re not creating a false sense of promise that growth is enough if you never get to proficiency,” Whitehead-Bust said.

The 2016 School Performance Framework will give straight academic proficiency, or status, a stronger weight:

  • Elementary schools will shift from a ratio of 3 to 1, growth to status, to 3 to 2, growth to status.
  • Middle schools will most likely shift from 3 to 1 to 2 to 1 in 2016.
  • High schools will most likely remain at 2 to 1.

A survey of principals showed that they were mostly in favor of the change, Whitehead-Bust said.

A school touts its score in Denver Public Schools' School Performance Framework.
A school touts its score in Denver Public Schools’ School Performance Framework.

The district is also considering adding an equity indicator as a way to identify achievement gaps within schools, but few details are public.

District officials said they plann to communicate the final changes to the SPF before the beginning of the 2015-16 school year so schools have time to understand and prepare for the changes.

At a meeting in February, board President Happy Haynes asked whether the district is attempting to use the SPF for too many decisions.

Boasberg said that while the multiple purposes are a “hard aspect” of the SPF, “I’m not sure I want to run from that. The alternative of having multiple different and conflicting systems I think would be even worse. I think it would cause more confusion and less transparency.”