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.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.