strict criteria

Why one Denver school with a record of low performance was not recommended for closure

PHOTO: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr

Of four low-performing Denver schools that were facing possible closure under a new district policy, the school with the lowest average school rating and the poorest academic growth scores was ultimately spared being recommended for closure.

West Early College, a high school on the West High campus, scored the requisite number of points on a comprehensive school quality review conducted last month, thereby knocking it out of the running for a school closure recommendation.

Denver Public Schools is recommending that the other three schools be either closed or restarted, meaning the existing school would be closed and replaced with a new one. The school board is expected to vote on the recommendations Thursday.

That district staff is recommending West Early College be saved shows the district is strictly adhering to the three criteria for its new policy, called the School Performance Compact. The policy outlines when the district should close or restart struggling schools. It was adopted by the school board last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

“We as staff felt like we did not have any judgment,” said Maya Lagana, director of strategic support and accountability for DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which assesses how schools are performing. “We had to follow the three criteria as stated.”

For a school to be recommended under the policy for closure or restart, it must:

— Rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings;

— Fail to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— Score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

School quality reviews were conducted at the four schools that met the first two criteria to determine whether, despite their low scores, the schools are on the right track. A team of DPS employees and representatives from a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks visited each school and rated it on a scale of 1 to 4 in 10 different categories.

West Early College scored 25 points on its review, the minimum required. However, it also didn’t receive any “1”s, which triggers a closure recommendation under the policy.

The other three schools scored fewer than 25 points, as well as at least one “1.”

But West Early College fared worse under the first two criteria than the other three schools — Amesse Elementary, Gilpin Montessori and Greenlee Elementary.

Under the first criteria, West Early College earned an average of 24 percent of total points on its three most recent school ratings. The other schools did better: Amesse earned an average of 31 percent, Gilpin earned an average of 27 percent and Greenlee earned an average of 30 percent, according to a presentation given to the school board Monday.

The same was true for the second criteria. West Early College earned just 19 percent of points allotted by the district’s school rating system for student academic growth on the most recent state tests. That’s far below the threshold of 50 percent the criteria requires.

Meanwhile, Amesse earned 40 percent of points for student academic growth, Gilpin earned 22 percent and Greenlee earned 49 percent, just barely missing the mark.

At a school board work session Monday, board member Lisa Flores said it was striking that West Early College wasn’t receiving a recommendation under the policy and called the school’s low academic growth score “challenging.”

But Flores, who represents the western part of the city where West Early College is located, said Wednesday she has confidence in the school’s principal, Ana Mendoza. Flores said she believes the school has made some big changes to improve student performance, including putting an emphasis on reading and math interventions for struggling students.

Mendoza and her supervisor, Instructional Superintendent Suzanne Morris-Sherer, declined requests to comment Wednesday for this story.

“The strategies she’s utilizing are very aggressive and there is a sense of urgency,” Flores said of Mendoza. “Unfortunately, you’re not seeing that yet in the growth.”

The school’s review noted that two-thirds of the classrooms visited were “conducive to learning.” The review team praised teachers for attending to students’ social and emotional needs.

“In one visited classroom, the teacher was heard asking a student, ‘Are you having a rough day?’” the review says. “In another classroom, site visit team members observed that a teacher recognized that a student had been absent for multiple days and provided additional guidance around the learning activity so that the student could meaningfully participate in the lesson.”

Lagana, of the DPS Portfolio Management Team, said the district is planning to review how the policy was carried out this first year. That will start with stakeholder meetings in January, she said, partly with the aim of assessing whether the three criteria are the right ones.

“We’re committed to making sure we’re getting it right,” she said.

Read West Early College’s full school quality review below.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

in support

Denver school board pledges to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder’ with undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Arizona Valverde, a ninth grader at Denver's North High, holds a sign in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017.

The Denver school board took a stand Thursday in support of young undocumented immigrants, urging Congress to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and pledging to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores in us,” said board member Angela Cobián.

Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of three board members who read the resolution out loud. Board member Lisa Flores read it in English, while Cobián and board member Carrie Olson, who until being elected last year worked as a bilingual Denver teacher, took turns reading it in Spanish.

“That was the most beautiful resolution I’ve ever heard read, and it’s so important,” board president Anne Rowe said when they’d finished.

The resolution passed unanimously. It says the seven-member school board implores Congress, including Colorado’s representatives, to “protect the DREAMers, providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.”

It also says the board “recognizes the importance of educators discussing and engaging with students on this issue,” including by delivering lessons explaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants under 35 who were brought to the United States as children.

President Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era program on March 5. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to provide legal protections to the approximately 800,000 immigrants who are in danger of losing their DACA status. Two different deals failed to pass the Senate Thursday night.

About 17,000 such immigrants live in Colorado. Denver Public Schools doesn’t track how many of its 92,600 students are protected by DACA, but the resolution notes that many young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, “have attended DPS schools their entire lives or are DPS graduates who have built their lives in our community.”

The district was also the first in the country to hire, through the Teach for America program, teachers who are DACA recipients. Cobián recognized five of those teachers Thursday.

A recent national study found that DACA has encouraged undocumented students to finish high school and enroll in college. The study also noted a decrease in teen pregnancy and an increase in the number of 17- to 29-year-old non-citizens who are working.

The resolution notes that ending DACA “will be deeply harmful to our schools and community, depriving countless students, families, and educators of their peace of mind, creating widespread fear and uncertainty, and causing significant disruption to the learning environment.”

This is not the first time the Denver school board has made a formal show of support for immigrant students. A year ago, as Trump’s presidency sparked fears of an immigration crackdown, the board unanimously approved a resolution affirming the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Below, read in full the resolution passed Thursday.