Score card

Proposed shift in Colorado’s school ratings draws ire of education reform, civil rights groups

Photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

A broad coalition of education reform and civil rights groups is lobbying against a proposed change to the way Colorado rates its schools, arguing that it would fail to provide a complete picture of how schools are educating the state’s most at-risk students.

State Department of Education officials say that few schools’ ratings would change as a result, and that the new system would better gauge how smaller schools are doing.

The State Board of Education is set to vote this week on the revision to the rating system, known as the School Performance Framework.

But it’s uncertain whether the move would be accepted by the federal government. As it stands, proposed guidelines for the nation’s new K-12 education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — would prohibit it.

The proposal is one of several changes to the state’s accountability system the state board is scheduled to consider this week. Schools that fall at the bottom of the state’s rating system for more than five years face sanctions such as being handed over to a charter school or being shut down. The system has been on pause for a year because of a switch in state assessments.

Under the current system, schools are rated based on students’ state test scores and other measures, including graduation rates in the case of high schools.

Schools get points based on the performance of all students, and also on the scores of students in each of five categories of historically underserved populations, such as English language learners, students with individualized lesson plans and those living in poverty.

School districts have complained that the current system penalizes schools with large populations of students that fall under multiple categories, known as subgroups.

“It’s an imbalance and it’s not a fair appraisal,” said Scott Graham, executive director of student academic support for Weld District Re-8. “… Is it fair to count students three or four times?”

In a letter to the State Board of Education supporting the change, Graham and other Weld officials say more than one-third of Fort Lupton students are counted three times.

An example of the new school performance framework report which includes data about how individual student "subgroups" perform on state tests but without points assigned.
PHOTO: Colorado Department of Education
An example of the new school performance framework report which includes data about how individual student “subgroups” perform on state tests but without points assigned. Click to enlarge.

Education department staff are recommending that schools earn points based on the scores of all students, and then all five subgroups lumped together. State officials say the result will be a more streamlined system that will be more understandable to parents, teachers and others.

But in a May letter to the state board, a coalition of 22 education reform advocacy and civil rights groups argued the change “would have significant implications for educational equity.”

One argument in the letter is that schools receive funding to meet the needs of subgroups, such as federal Title I funds for the state’s poorest students.

“As of right now, there are dedicated funding streams for educating each of those kids,” said Ross Izard, senior education policy analyst for the libertarian Independence Institute, which is part of the coalition. “As long as we’re funding special needs programs, each of those programs need to produce results and each one needs to be accountable to taxpayers.”

Another signee, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, analyzed state data and predicted results for about 30 of the state’s more than 1,800 schools would be inflated as a result of the proposed change, said Leslie Colwell, the nonprofit’s vice president of education initiatives.

“When you lump all of these groups together, it sends a message that all these kids have the same needs — and that’s not true,” Colwell said.

The districts that got a bump under the advocacy group’s analysis ran the gamut in terms of how they have scored historically on the state system, she said.

The proposed change has begun to attract national attention. On Monday, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights organization, The Leadership Conference, called it a “sleight of hand.”

“You can’t fix a problem that you don’t identify,” Wade Henderson, the conference’s CEO, said in a news release. “Coloradans deserve to know how all students are doing and to expect that the state will use that information to make smart policy decisions about how to help struggling students.”

Graham said the needs of students from historically underrepresented groups would be met under the change. As part of the proposal, reports on each school will still include data on each student subgroup; but when it comes to assigning scores, all those groups will be counted as one.

“Teachers will be able to work with the same data they’ve always had,” he said.

Schools also would be responsible for addressing how they plan to improve instruction for any subgroup of students that does not meet state expectations.

State education department officials point to another upside to the proposed change: a far fuller picture of how small rural schools serve students from underserved populations.

Under the current system, schools are not judged on how they do with a subgroup with fewer than 16 students — the threshold the state uses to protect student privacy. Putting all the subgroups in one large group means those districts will be held into account for those results.

Several states, including Mississippi and Michigan, have taken a similar approach to school ratings under flexibility previously granted by the U.S. Department of Education.

However, proposed guidelines released in-late May state clearly that such ratings would be unacceptable under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Alyssa Pearson, interim associate commissioner for Accountability/Performance at the Colorado Department of Education, said the department is taking a wait-and-see approach with ESSA regulations.

Pearson added that the state will need to make even more changes to its accountability system by 2017, when ESSA goes into effect.

“This will be an ongoing conversation,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Update: This post has been updated to include an image of the proposed school performance framework. This post has also been updated to more accurately reflect Ross Izard’s comments.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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