spotlighting disparities

Denver Public Schools retooling equity measure, presses forward on scoring schools

Denver middle school students (Denver Post file)

Denver Public Schools is moving forward with plans to hold schools accountable through a new measure meant to gauge how well they are educating traditionally underserved students, but not before making changes to address concerns from principals and other school leaders.

At a work session Monday, two school board members objected to making the so-called “equity indicator” count toward schools’ overall district quality ratings starting this fall, saying the district was moving too fast. The board eventually reached consensus, backing Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s desire to press forward even as he acknowledged the risks.

The reform-minded district is using the equity indicator to shine a spotlight on educational disparities and encourage change at the school-level. Although DPS’s traditionally underserved students have posted gains on state tests, gaps separating those students from their more privileged peers persist or are widening.

The new measure takes into account the test scores and graduation rates of students of color, low-income students, English language learners and special education students. The district introduced the measure last year, and made schools’ scores public.

But because it was new, the equity rating didn’t count toward a school’s overall rating on Denver’s color-coded school rating system, known as the school performance framework.

The plan all along was to change that starting this fall, based in part on results of state tests students are about to take. Schools’ equity ratings follow the same scale as the overall ratings: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red (the lowest).

Beginning this fall, schools will need to score green or above on equity to be green or blue overall. Several schools have work to do: Of the 82 DPS schools that were blue or green overall last year, 33 were below green on equity.

Two-dozen DPS schools earned the lowest possible equity score last year — red. The district uses school ratings to help make several important decisions, including whether to close schools that are persistently low-performing.

It’s uncertain how changes coming to the equity indicator will change how schools rank.

While some of the changes are new, others were communicated to school leaders last May, said Grant Guyer, executive director of DPS’s department of accountability, research and evaluation.

Some of the most significant moves, which grew out of school leaders’ concerns, deemphasize achievement gaps within individual schools, instead putting more weight on how particular student groups within schools compare to district targets in proficiency (being at grade level) and growth (how much they’ve improved). 

“This was trying to address the concerns that, ‘Well, maybe I have a big gap, but all of my kids are outperforming the district. Why should I be penalized for a large gap?’” said DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.

DPS said achievement gaps within schools are still included as important measures on overall school ratings system.

Other changes include incorporating early literacy scores into the equity measure, and a greater emphasis on results of tests given to English language learners.

Cordova said that it’s difficult to say whether schools’ equity scores will rise or fall with the changes because the district is tweaking the overall rating system, not just the equity indicator.

The disagreement among board members over the timing of making the equity indicator count was unusual for a board united in support of Boasberg’s brand of education reform.

Board member Mike Johnson, who represents central Denver, said it “feels arbitrary” to hold schools accountable to standards the district is only now establishing. He said the district runs the risk of fewer people buying into the system.

“What we are trying to do is change behavior,” Johnson said. “If you want to change behavior, you need to tell people exactly what you want them to do, give them the tools to do it, and give them opportunity to do it. It just seems we are out of sync in doing that.”

Lisa Flores, who represents northwest and west Denver, voiced support for delaying by a year making the equity indicator count.

Other board members, however, supported moving forward, citing a sense of urgency. Ultimately, the board gave its blessing to Boasberg moving forward as planned. (The decision did not require a school board vote).

District staff said the equity indicator already has led to positive steps, including schools digging more deeply into data, examining causes for gaps and developing plans to take them on.

Boasberg conceded that whether to press forward this year “is a hard question and tough call.”

“But I do think part of what is driving me is that we’ve been at this for a while now,” he said. “And we’ve made some progress but not anywhere near the progress we want to make.”

Boasberg also discussed the societal forces the district faces tackling educational disparities. While teachers and school-leaders are passionate about working with the district’s highest-needs kids, factors ranging from bias to active parents push for giving attention to kids “with more social capital,” a dynamic that plays out at every level of society, he said.

measuring up

Civil rights and community groups: Adjust inflated Denver elementary school ratings

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The leaders of six community groups issued a joint letter Thursday calling on the Denver school board to immediately correct what they called misleading and inflated elementary school ratings.

“Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable,” says the letter, which noted that Denver Public Schools families will soon begin making choices about where to send their children to school next year.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district plans to address the issue the group is raising but would not change this year’s School Performance Framework ratings, which were released in October.

The letter was signed by leaders from groups that advocate for people of color: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP Denver Branch, the African Leadership Group, Together Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the nation’s first African-American fraternity.

“The methods used to calculate school scores in the 2017 SPF have, as acknowledged in meetings between the superintendent and the undersigned, resulted in inflated performance rankings,” the letter says. “Specifically, the district is significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”

The School Performance Framework awards schools points based on various metrics. The points put them in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red. A record number of schools earned blue and green ratings this year.

The district increased the number of points elementary schools could earn this year if their students in kindergarten through third grade did well on state-required early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation.

The increase came at the same time schools across Denver saw big jumps in the number of students scoring at grade-level on iStation and similar tests. While the district celebrated those gains and credited an increased focus on early literacy, some community leaders and advocates questioned whether the scores paint an accurate picture of student achievement.

At some schools, there was a big gap between the percentage of third-graders reading at grade-level as measured by the early literacy tests and the percentage of third-graders reading and writing at grade-level according to the more rigorous PARCC tests. The state and the district consider the PARCC tests the gold standard measure of what students should know.

For example, 73 percent of third-graders at Castro Elementary in southwest Denver scored on grade-level on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Boasberg has acknowledged the misalignment. To address it, the district announced this fall that it plans to raise the early literacy test cut points starting in 2019 for the purposes of the School Performance Framework, which means it will be harder for schools to earn points. The delay in raising the cut points is to give schools time to get used to them, Boasberg said.

But the letter authors don’t want to wait. They’re asking the district to issue a “correction of the early literacy measure” before its school choice window opens in February.

“We call on the Denver Public Schools Board and Superintendent to re-issue corrected 2017 school performance results for all affected schools to ensure parents have honest information to choose the schools that are best for their students,” the letter says.

But Boasberg said changing the ratings now would be “fundamentally unfair and make very little sense.”

“If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts,” he said.

In an interview, Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, said, “This is not an attempt to come after the district. The Urban League has had a longstanding partnership with DPS. We work together on a lot of issues that really impact our community.

“But when our organizations see things that may not be in the full best interest of our communities,” Bradley said, “we have a real responsibility to talk about it and work with the district to rectify it.”

The concern about early literacy scores was one of several expressed by advocates and educators related to this year’s school ratings. Others complained the district’s new “academic gaps indicator” unfairly penalized schools that serve a diverse population.

Read the letter in its entirety below.

integration conversation

Gentrification is changing Denver schools. These recommendations aim to address that.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Kindergarten students line up on the first day of school in 2012 at Whittier K-8 School in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.

The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.

Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.

The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.

The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.

Here is what the committee is urging the district do:

  • Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
  • In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
  • Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
  • Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
  • Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
  • Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
  • Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
  • Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
  • Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
  • Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
  • Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
  • Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
  • Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomically diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
  • Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
  • Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
  • Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.

The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.

There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.

The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.

There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.

Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?

Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.

The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.