measuring up

Denver Public Schools lowering the bar on school rating measure in response to concerns

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg talks to sixth graders in 2012 .

Denver Public Schools is making a last-minute change to how it calculates its color-coded school ratings for this academic year by lowering the bar on one key measure.

The adjustment — which involves scores on state standardized tests in math and English — comes after school leaders were given preliminary ratings last week and raised concerns.

Those ratings, obtained by Chalkbeat, show that before the change DPS is adopting, about 45 percent of schools would have dropped at least one color on DPS’s five-color scale. About 38 percent would have stayed the same, while about 17 percent would have gone up. The district’s color ratings range from a high of “blue” to a low of “red.”

DPS officials have long known students’ scores on new, more rigorous math and English tests were likely to be lower than on previous state tests. But officials were not planning on tweaking the rating system as a result, reasoning that the new tests are more in line with what students are expected to know and lowering the bar would paint a misleading picture.

But DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that district officials changed their minds after seeing how the ratings shook out.

“When you talk about a framework in the absence of data, your discussion is going to be a lot less rich than when you have real data that makes you aware of issues that, on a more abstract and theoretical level, you’re not aware of,” he said.

The change relates to students’ status scores, meaning how many students met or exceeded expectations on state tests, known as PARCC. Status scores are one ingredient that goes into a school’s rating. Growth scores — or how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers — are another and count for more.

Because the way the state calculates growth has stayed the same despite the switch to the new tests, those scores haven’t been impacted by the tests’ increased rigor the way status scores have. That’s why the district is focusing on the latter, Boasberg said.

Here’s what DPS is proposing to do and why:

In the past, the percentage of students who had to meet or exceed expectations for a school to earn a high DPS rating ranged by grade level and subject between 20 and 50 percent, Boasberg said. The preliminary ratings released last week used those same cut points.

Once school principals saw the ratings, Boasberg said they raised concerns about using different cut points for different grade levels and subjects. While doing so made sense for the old state tests, on which younger students tended to do better than older students, he said it makes less sense for the new, more consistent PARCC tests.

And while DPS’s rating system has long been tougher than the state system, Boasberg indicated some principals wondered whether it was too tough. For example, he said, they told the district it didn’t seem fair that a school where, say, 40 percent of third-graders met or exceeded expectations on the state English test could get a low DPS rating when an average of only 37 percent of Colorado third-graders met that bar.

As a result, the district is planning to recalculate its ratings using cut points that range from 20 percent to 40 percent, instead of 50 percent, Boasberg said. However, in a letter to principals Wednesday obtained by Chalkbeat, he warned the cut points for all tests would rise to 50 percent in 2018.

The district is aiming to provide recalculated ratings to school leaders by Oct. 21 and release them publicly on Oct. 27. Boasberg said he expects “very few” schools’ ratings to change. Even so, he said, “the consistency and coherence of the (rating system) is important. We didn’t feel it was right to ignore thoughtful and well-grounded concerns about that … even if it means extremely little difference for most schools.”

At a school board meeting Monday, before district staff decided to lower the cut points, board members said they worried how families would react to drops in color ratings.

“Let’s say you had a school that’s been green for a couple of years,” said board president Anne Rowe. “This comes out and that school is orange. As a parent, I might say, ‘Whoa! What happened to my school?’ My question is, ‘How do we communicate: what does that mean?’”

Research shows families rely on the rating system, known as the School Performance Framework, when making choices about where to send their children. And because of Denver’s universal school choice system, students can request to enroll in any school in the city. Since school budgets are based on enrollment, their choices have financial consequences.

“I’m really worried about public perception, where a lot of people just look at that color and make decisions about schools,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Boasberg told the board it will be important to caution families about the quirks of this year’s ratings. Those cautions include that because last year was just the second year Colorado students took PARCC, only one year of growth data is available.

In the past, DPS has used two years’ worth of growth data to calculate schools’ ratings. The district believes using more data smooths out one-time anomalies that can cause scores to swing up or down, he said.

Since growth counts more than status in DPS’s rating system, having just one year of data means schools are likely to see bigger swings this year, Boasberg explained.

This year’s ratings are especially high-stakes because the district plans to use them to help make decisions about whether to close persistently low-performing schools under a new DPS policy called the School Performance Compact.

The policy uses three criteria to determine whether to close a school. The first is whether that school ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all schools based on multiple years of ratings.

The board is currently scheduled to vote in December on whether to close schools.

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.