ABCs of the SPF

Your guide to understanding Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system

Fifth-graders at Denver's McMeen Elementary School (Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post).

Denver Public Schools released its annual school ratings Thursday.

Known as the School Performance Framework, or SPF, the district’s rating system assigns each school a color that’s not unlike a letter grade. But instead of A through F, schools are rated from blue (the highest rating) to red (the lowest rating).

Want to know more about how it works and why it matters?

DPS has a website devoted to the School Performance Framework that answers many common questions. We’ve also written a guide with all you need to know about this year’s ratings:

How was my school rated?

Schools are awarded points based on a number of factors and those points are combined to come up with a final score. The factors differ slightly from elementary to middle and high school. For instance, elementary schools are judged partly on how many kindergarteners are reading at grade-level, while high schools are rated in part on how many graduates need — or, preferably, don’t need — remedial classes in college.

But there are several factors on which all schools are evaluated. They include:

Academic Growth: How much students’ scores on state standardized tests improved compared to the scores of students across the state who started at a similar academic level.

Academic Proficiency: The percentage of students who met or exceeded expectations on state tests — in other words, who scored at grade level. This factor is often referred to as “status.”

Enrollment Rates: How many students re-enroll at a school year to year.

Parent Satisfaction: How many parents are satisfied with a school, as measured by a survey.

My school was rated (your color here). What does that mean?

Each school is assigned a color based on its final score. There are five colors on DPS’s scale.

Blue: Distinguished.
Green: Meets Expectations.
Yellow: Accredited on Watch.
Orange: Accredited on Priority Watch.
Red: Accredited on Probation.

Are there consequences connected to a school’s rating?

Yes. And not all of them are necessarily bad.

For instance, DPS doles out extra funding, sometimes referred to as “tiered supports,” to low-rated schools in an effort to boost achievement.

Last school year, 35 schools shared just shy of $14 million in DPS dollars, in addition to federal grant money, according to a presentation given by district staff to the school board in March. Those schools got a total of $1,674 more per pupil, according to the presentation.

However, if schools continue to falter even after getting help, they face the possibility of closure.

This fall, the district will use a new policy to determine which schools should be “restarted,” or closed and replaced. The policy, called the School Performance Compact, calls for using three criteria to identify persistently low-performing schools. The first is whether a school ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of color-coded school ratings.

The ratings also have consequences for teacher pay under DPS’s incentive-based system.

The last time DPS rated schools was in 2014. Why were there no ratings last year?

There were no ratings last year because the state switched to a new set of standardized tests in math and English. The tests are known as PARCC, and Colorado students have now taken them twice: first in the spring of 2015 and again in the spring of 2016.

You may also hear them called CMAS, which refers to the entire bundle of tests that Colorado students take, including science and social studies tests first taken by kids in 2014.

Because 2015 was the first year DPS students took PARCC, the district was unable to calculate students’ academic growth, which requires at least two years’ worth of test scores and is a big part of a school’s rating. As Superintendent Tom Boasberg likes to say, “What’s most important is not where you start, but how much you grow.”

In the absence of growth data, the district decided to forgo rating schools last year.

I heard DPS changed the way it calculates its ratings this year. Is that true?

Yes. In fact, DPS changed the calculation in two ways.

The first is that the district added additional factors. One example: The SPF will now include multiple measures of how well a school is teaching literacy to young children, including how much progress students designated as “significantly below grade level” are making.

This year’s ratings will also include a factor based on equity. Schools will be more explicitly evaluated on how well they’re serving students of color, for instance. However, because the equity factor is new this year, it won’t count toward a school’s overall rating.

The second way DPS changed the calculation was last-minute. Last week, district officials decided to lower the bar on one key measure after hearing concerns from school leaders.

The details are somewhat complicated. Because the new PARCC tests are more rigorous than the old state tests, fewer students across Colorado — and in DPS — met or exceeded expectations on the tests. But until last week, DPS wasn’t planning to lower the percentage of students who’d have to meet that bar for a school to receive a high rating.

District officials changed their minds, however, when they saw how the ratings shook out.

How much stock should families put into these ratings? How worried should I be if my child’s school dropped a color rating or two?

District officials are telling families to exercise caution when reading into this year’s ratings. In fact, at a recent school board meeting, some board members suggested printing the word “CAUTION” on top of a school’s color rating.

There are a couple of reasons why, officials said. One of the biggest is 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 in order to smooth out one-time anomalies that can cause scores to swing up or down.

Having just one year of data means schools this year are likely to see bigger swings in their ratings, either for better or worse, Boasberg said at that board meeting.

“As we talk to parents and community members, we say, ‘Yes, the SPF is important,’” he said. “But the most important thing is to go visit a school, talk to parents, talk to students.

“No system (is) ever going to be perfect,” he added, referring to the district’s ratings. “The way we do the SPF is more comprehensive and reliable than anything we’ve seen out there, nationally or statewide. People do care deeply about the SPF. It does tell an important story. But it’s important that we tell that with humility and we tell that with caution.”

feeling blue

New “education quarterback” organization to invest philanthropic dollars in Denver

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Nate Easley high-fives a Denver Scholarship Foundation alum at an event in 2015.

A new education-focused philanthropic collaborative is aiming to launch in Denver this fall, and it’s hired its first leader: Nate Easley, a Denver Public Schools graduate, former school board president and current head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Easley is set to begin as CEO of Blue School Partners in October. The nonprofit organization plans to act as Denver’s “education quarterback,” soliciting local and national foundation dollars to fund initiatives to grow the ranks of talented teachers and principals, increase the number of high-achieving schools, and ramp up demand from families for those schools, leaders said.

“My philosophy has always been to connect the dots,” Easley said.

The establishment of an “education quarterback” is a concept promoted by Education Cities, a national network of city-based organizations that push for school autonomy. Education quarterbacks in other cities, such as The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, have recruited teacher training programs like Teach for America to work with their districts, supported the development of autonomous charter and innovation schools, and advocated for school choice.

The Denver-based Gates Family Foundation is a member of Education Cities and was instrumental in starting Blue School Partners. (The foundation provides funding to Chalkbeat).

The name of the organization comes from DPS’s color-coded school rating system. Blue is the highest rating in the system, which heavily weights student test scores, academic growth and progress in closing achievement gaps. Last year, 12 of the district’s 199 schools were blue.

Mary Seawell, who served on the school board with Easley and who is the foundation’s senior vice president for education, said Blue School Partners was born of a desire among local funders to accelerate Denver Public Schools’ progress.

DPS is nationally known as a hotbed of education reform. It has more than 100 charter and innovation schools, and it was recently recognized as the best in the country for school choice. Innovation schools are operated by the district but have autonomy similar to charter schools.

However, the 92,000-student district also has lofty goals, including that 80 percent of students in each of the city’s regions will attend top-performing schools by 2020. Last year, those percentages ranged from a low of 35 percent in the far northeast part of the city to a high of 67 percent in the southeast region, according to DPS data.

“This started with a group of people looking at the data and seeing what the gap was … and what was the likelihood they’d get there without significant support,” said Seawell, who is on Blue School Partners’ founding board of directors.

Funders hit upon the idea that they could accomplish more if their efforts were coordinated and their investments were driven by a community-based organization, she said.

To be part of Blue School Partners, foundations must make a three-year commitment to contribute to the organization’s operating costs and fund one or more of its initiatives, Seawell said. Foundations must also agree not to give money to initiatives that are taking on the same issues in Denver as Blue School Partners, she said.

In addition to the Gates Family Foundation, Blue School Partners was founded by the national Walton Family and Laura and John Arnold foundations, with the input of other local leaders. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat). None of the foundations have made public how much money they will contribute.

Other foundations may join, as well. The national Michael and Susan Dell Foundation told Chalkbeat it is “evaluating the opportunity.” Several local foundations were interested to first know who the CEO would be before committing, Seawell said.

Blue School Partners conducted a nationwide leader search, though Seawell said the board was hoping for someone local. The decision to hire Easley, a DPS parent who has spent nearly a decade as CEO of the Denver Scholarship Foundation providing need-based scholarships to mostly first-generation college students, was unanimous, she said. Easley is a graduate of Denver’s now-closed Montbello High School and was on the school board from 2009 to 2013.

“His commitment and his passion are so real and that’s what’s going to drive him,” Seawell said. “He cares about the highest-needs kids.”

Easley said his first order of business will be to come up with a strategy for achieving Blue School Partners’ goals. While he won’t have specifics until after the launch, he said he imagines it will involve making sure existing schools have well-trained, culturally diverse staff, and ensuring promising new schools have proven leaders and access to buildings.

He emphasized that the organization won’t solely focus on charter schools, a common target for critics of DPS school reforms. However, Easley said he hopes that in talking with families about the need for high-quality schools, he’ll be able to disabuse them of the notion that charters are bad or private. (All of DPS’s charter schools are operated by nonprofits.)

“It’s getting past the noise and having a conversation with people who have the same goal that we have, and that is that their kid have a quality education,” he said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he looks forward to working with Easley on the evolution of Blue School Partners, especially since similar organizations have been successful in supporting innovative ideas in other cities.

“We think Blue Schools has great potential to bring additional resources and to facilitate learning and collaboration across district-run schools and charter schools,” Boasberg said.

split decision

Denver teachers union, members of progressive wing diverge on key school board races

The vote is a ways off, but endorsements are rolling in (Denver Post file).

The Denver teachers union and a caucus within the union are split over who to support in two competitive school board races that could determine the direction of the state’s largest school district.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Union this week announced endorsements for all four races in play this fall on the seven-member board.

The endorsements are significant because a small donor committee of the union is a major contributor to board candidates.

In two races, the DCTA endorsements align with earlier statements of support for candidates from the Caucus of Today’s Teachers, formed last year by a group of progressive, social justice-minded teachers that would like to see the union be more aggressive.

But in the two races that feature multiple challengers to incumbents, the union and its caucus diverge. In the at-large race, DCTA endorsed Robert Speth, a northwest Denver parent who nearly upset board member Happy Haynes two years ago, over one of its own — Julie Bañuelos, a former teacher who recently served on the DCTA board.

The caucus is supporting Bañuelos, citing her teaching experience and advocacy for communities of color. Speth and Bañuelos are trying to unseat Barbara O’Brien, the board vice president and former lieutenant governor, who is running again.

The union endorsed Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who has had a leadership role with the advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, for the northeast Denver seat now held by Rachele Espiritu, who is running for the first time since being appointed to the board in spring 2016.

The caucus is backing a different challenger: Tay Anderson, a 2017 graduate of Manual High School whose campaign has attracted national attention and endorsements from former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and education historian Diane Ravitch, a union ally.

Both DCTA president Henry Roman and caucus members downplayed the differences.

“We live in a democracy,” Roman said Friday. “We are speaking our voice.”

“We don’t look at it as anything that’s negative or divisive,” said Tommie Shimrock, a founding member of the caucus who sought to unseat Roman in union leadership elections this year. “It’s significant in that it’s yet another way for members of DCTA to have our voices heard, through the caucus.”

Of endorsing Speth over Bañuelos, Roman said, “We feel like this is not a vote against anyone. We feel he is a stronger candidate.”

The union and caucus are both supporting longtime educator Carrie Olson over incumbent Mike Johnson for a seat representing east and central Denver, and Denver Public Schools parent Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan over former DPS teacher Angela Cobián for the southwest Denver seat. Cobián has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who is not running for re-election.

The campaign is expected to feature big money, intense debates and attempts to link incumbents to school choice policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

All seven current board members support DPS’s nationally recognized school reforms, which include closing low-performing schools and promoting school choice through a mix of district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools that operate with similar autonomy. None of the current board members support private school vouchers, a centerpiece of DeVos’s agenda.

Candidates in favor of DPS reforms historically have raised large sums from wealthy donors both from Colorado and out of state. Pro-reform candidates also have gotten backing from an independent expenditure committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform.

Adding another wrinkle, a nonprofit group called Our Denver Our Schools that is opposed to the current direction of the school district is offering its own endorsements — and they don’t match up exactly to either the union endorsements or the caucus’s statements of support.

Our Denver Our Schools is endorsing Speth, Anderson, Olson and Gaytan.

Speth is a founding member of Our Denver Our Schools, which formed last year. Scott Glipin, a co-founder of the group and Speth’s campaign manager two years ago, said Speth is not part of the group’s steering committee, which selected the candidate endorsements. Speth “went through the same process as every other candidate,” Gilpin said.