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.

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

vote of confidence

Despite emerging grading scandal, Hopson gets longer contract — and a raise

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks at a back-to-school press conference for Shelby County Schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Amid a widening investigation stemming from allegations of grade-fixing at one Memphis high school, the school board made it clear Wednesday that it wants Dorsey Hopson at the helm.

The board voted to keep Hopson as superintendent until at least 2020, and to increase his annual pay from $269,000 to $285,000. That puts Hopson on par with Shawn Joseph, director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee’s second largest district behind Shelby County Schools.

The 8-0 vote came with one abstention from Chris Caldwell, who was chairman of the board in June when members voted to extend Hopson’s contract. (A technicality required the board to revisit the matter this week.)

“I cannot support the motion, either the dollar amount or the length,” Caldwell said. “We are in the middle of investigating a grading scandal…. This is far from over. So I think it’s premature to extend a contract to 2020. I think one year is all that I’m willing to agree to.”

But other board members said Hopson deserves more time because his performance has brought the district far more good than bad. His contract also requires a raise, they said, to correspond with hikes in teacher salaries the last two years.

“I know it’s not perfect. We’ve got a lot of balls in the air. It’s tough,” said board member Billy Orgel, adding that Hopson is doing “great work.”

The board’s vote of confidence came only hours after the superintendent spoke about the widening investigation into the high rate of grade changing at seven high schools including Trezevant High, where investigators found evidence of falsified grades and two employees have been fired.

Asked how much responsibility he bears as the district’s leader, Hopson told reporters that the buck stops with him.

“At the end of the day, as a superintendent, I’m really responsible and accountable for everything,” he said. “From my standpoint, I’ve tried my best to conduct myself in an ethical and transparent way. I think, if you look at my record, that’s what I’ve demonstrated. Having said that, when you’re in charge of an organization and something happens in an organization, you can’t shirk responsibility. Moving forward, what I’m even more responsible for is cleaning it up.”

Hopson has been in contact with the State Department of Education since September of 2016 when Trezevant’s new principal reported finding inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts. He ordered an internal review and, after the principal submitted a fiery resignation letter in June alleging a district cover-up, launched an external review by several investigators and a North Carolina accounting firm.

A technicality forced the board to revisit Hopson’s contract this week. In June, the body approved a contract that amounted to a six-year term — two years longer than allowed under a state rule, according to Herman Morris, the school board’s attorney.