measuring quality

Why Denver’s school rating system is coming under fire on multiple fronts

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post
Brown International Academy teacher Kate Tynan-Ridgeway works with a student.

Denver Public Schools’ comprehensive and increasingly complex system for rating schools is facing criticism this year from leaders and advocates on different sides of the education policy debate.

Some say the system is making bad schools look good. Others say the opposite. Many complain that frequent changes to the School Performance Framework make excellence a moving target in a district that promotes school choice — and one in which parents use the color-coded ratings to decide where to send their kids.

A record number of schools earned one of the top two ratings on the framework this fall, putting the state’s largest school district closer to meeting goals for raising the quality of schools citywide.

With student enrollment tied to funding, and in an era where low performance puts Denver schools on a path toward closure or replacement, the ratings carry real consequences.

“Lots of things get mentioned or murmured in the hallways,” said Chantel Maybach, an educator at George Washington High School. “Instead of building up a school, that’s an easy way to start tearing it down from the inside, those fears and those concerns.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg defended the ratings system, which put new emphasis this year on how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students. He also defended the academic gains schools have made and the high ratings they earned.

But he acknowledged that some measures weren’t as rigorous as they need to be, while others had the potential to be applied in a way that didn’t make sense. Correcting that will require more changes to the framework. While the fluidity of the system is one of the most persistent criticisms, he said making those changes is critical if Denver is going to get it right.

“Do you not make improvements that clearly need to be made in the interest of saying, ‘No change?’” Boasberg said. “I think our view is that over time, as we learn more and listen to folks, we want to make those improvements. … If we have data that’s not doing a good job helping schools focus on how and what to improve, that’s a reason we want to improve our tool.”

The concerns voiced by educators and advocates this year include that the framework too heavily weights the scores of less-rigorous early literacy tests taken by students in kindergarten through third grade, thereby inflating elementary school ratings.

Others complain that the new “academic gaps indicator” for all schools does the opposite, unfairly penalizing those that serve a diverse population at a time when the 92,000-student district, where two-thirds of students are living in poverty, is trying to increase school integration.

To understand the concerns, it’s helpful to first understand the framework.

What is the School Performance Framework?

The School Performance Framework was adopted by Denver Public Schools in 2008 under Boasberg’s predecessor, Michael Bennet, who is now a U.S. senator.

It awards schools points based on a long list of metrics. The number of points a school earns puts it in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red.

The system was meant to reward top-performers and identify low ones, which from the beginning received extra funding to help them improve. Bennet warned the ratings could have more dire consequences, too, including being used as a basis for school closure.

While the district has for many years closed schools due to poor performance, it solidified the framework’s role in those decisions in 2015 when the school board approved a policy setting consecutive low ratings as the first step toward school closure or restart.

So how are schools measured? State test scores have always been a big part of the metrics. But it’s more than just how many students score at grade-level or above, a factor the district calls status. In fact, the framework more heavily weights academic growth, or how much progress students make on the tests compared to peers who scored similarly to them in previous years.

When the framework debuted, Denver was among a first wave of large urban districts to emphasize growth over status. In 2008, growth accounted for about 60 percent of a school’s score, while status counted for about 30 percent, a ratio of 2-to-1.

As the district has added more growth metrics over the years, that ratio has stretched to 3-to-1 for elementary and middle schools. Growth accounted for 73 percent of an elementary school’s score this year, while status counted for 22 percent.

Boasberg is adamant that growth is more important than status. The latter, he said, is more a measure of where students start, which can depend on factors outside a school’s control. A school is not “good” because it serves more affluent kids, he said.

The traditional way of measuring schools based on how many students pass a test “plays to your worst biases around privilege,” Boasberg said. “The most important thing is for schools to make sure when kids come in, whatever level they’re at, that they grow.”

But the district has been criticized, including by candidates in this year’s heated school board election, for giving high ratings to schools that may have above-average growth but where, for example, just 10 percent of third-graders can read and write at grade-level.

The percentage of schools rated blue and green, the two highest ratings, has grown over the years. In 2010, 45 percent of schools were blue and green. This year, more than 60 percent were. The district’s goal is for 80 percent of schools in every neighborhood to be blue or green by 2020.

Sean Bradley, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, is concerned that all that blue and green is misleading to parents.

“The district has a duty to tell the truth,” he said. “And the current calculations that the district is putting out there may not be as accurate as we assume they are.”

Early literacy concerns

Last year, just 9 percent of third-graders at Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver scored at grade-level or above on the PARCC literacy test, which the state requires be given to students in grades three through nine and which it considers the gold standard measure of what students should know.

But 57 percent of those same third-graders scored at grade-level or above on the iStation literacy test, another state-chosen test that’s given to students in kindergarten through third grade.

For the purposes of Denver’s school ratings, that 48-point gap and others like it are troubling to advocates like Van Schoales, CEO of the nonprofit education advocacy group A Plus Colorado.

“What’s happened this year on the elementary school front, primarily because of the early literacy scores, threatens undermining the whole system,” Schoales said. “Most importantly, it is saying to families that schools are good when they aren’t.”

This year, the district increased the number of points schools could earn for doing well on iStation and other early literacy tests by adding metrics measuring how groups of traditionally underserved students did, which district leaders consider key to closing achievement gaps.

That increase in the number of points came at the same time schools across Denver, including Barnum, saw big jumps in the number of young students scoring at grade-level on iStation and other tests, which leaders credit to an increased focus and investment in early literacy.

As a result, Barnum earned nearly every possible point on the framework for its early literacy scores, while earning far fewer points for its PARCC scores, including zeroes in several categories. The school, which serves a primarily low-income student population, was rated green this year after being rated yellow the year before.

In a statement provided to Chalkbeat, Principal Beth Vinson said Barnum is proud to have been rated green. She said its focus on early literacy “is starting to show good results” that she hopes will lead to higher achievement in its upper grades.

Barnum was not the only green school with a big chasm between its third-grade early literacy scores and its third-grade PARCC scores. One of the biggest was at Castro Elementary, where 73 percent of third-graders scored on grade-level on iStation but just 17 percent did on PARCC. Castro jumped all the way from a red rating, the lowest, to green this year.

Boasberg agrees that the misalignment between PARCC and tests like iStation is concerning. Because PARCC is relatively new, he said it was only recently that the district had enough data to confirm the mismatch. To remedy it, the district announced this fall that it will raise the early literacy test cut points, which were previously set by test makers and the state. Doing so will make it harder for schools to earn points, which Boasberg suspects will affect ratings.

The higher cut points will go into effect for 2019, giving schools time to get used to them. Boasberg rejected an idea floated by some critics to eliminate the early literacy tests from the framework altogether. While he acknowledged they’re an imperfect measure, he said the district added them in response to complaints that elementary school ratings long ignored progress being made in the lower grades because those students don’t take PARCC.

“We definitely agree the PARCC assessment is a stronger, higher quality assessment,” he said. But the early literacy tests are useful, too, he said, and the district is better off using them than nothing. “The question is,” he said, “‘Do you let the perfect be the enemy of the good?’”

The debate over academic gaps

Another pervasive complaint this year has been how the district’s focus on academic gaps between more-privileged and less-privileged students is dragging down some schools’ ratings.

Two years ago, the district launched a new part of the framework it called the “equity indicator.” Meant to shine a light on educational disparities, it measured how traditionally underserved students — low-income students, students of color, special education students and English language learners — were scoring on tests compared to set benchmarks, and how they were scoring compared to students not in those groups, so-called “reference students.”

The district warned schools that the following year, the equity indicator could count against them. If they didn’t score blue or green on the indicator, they couldn’t be blue or green overall.

During that hold-harmless year, 33 blue or green schools scored poorly on equity. The hold-harmless period also provided a chance to highlight issues with the indicator. Some school leaders, for example, complained it was unfairly dinging them for having large gaps even though their traditionally underserved students were scoring better than average.

What sort of message was it sending low-income parents, they argued, when a school with a big gap between poor and affluent students but where poor students were doing above average was rated lower on equity than a school where all students were doing below average?

The district took those concerns into account and tweaked the indicator this year, Boasberg said. It still measures gaps within a school, but it awards twice as many points for whether traditionally underserved students are meeting the benchmarks, taking the emphasis off the comparisons and putting it on whether underserved kids are on grade-level.

The district also gave the indicator a more precise name: the “academic gaps indicator.”

But concerns persist.

The Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a charter elementary school where about 40 percent of students are minorities and a quarter are low-income, scored red on the academic gaps indicator for the second year in a row and was rated orange overall.

School leaders acknowledge the school has work to do in closing its gaps. Last year, 61 percent of middle- and upper-income third-graders scored at grade-level on the state literacy tests, while just 23 percent of students who qualify for subsidized lunches did, for example.

But they said despite the district’s tweak, it continues to make little sense that schools with smaller gaps but 8 percent literacy proficiency are green, while their school is orange.

“This isn’t about not holding us accountable for our achievement gaps,” said principal Erin Sciscione. “We want to be held accountable to that. We just don’t think the current system of measuring that is doing what it says it’s doing.”

Chantel Maybach, a special education coordinator at George Washington High, was among a group of teachers, parents and students who spoke publicly about the indicator at a recent school board meeting. She said she was “discouraged and sickened” to learn from one of the school’s data specialists that if white students at George had just not answered every fifth question on the test, the school would done better on the indicator and been green overall instead of yellow.

Senior Emily Ostrander said the lower rating was unfair for a school that serves “some of the highest-achievers in the district.” George is home to a rigorous International Baccalaureate program that for years fueled a divide among students, often along racial lines, that the school is working to erase. About 72 percent of George students last year were students of color, and about 55 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

“In a way, it dings the school for being as diverse as it is,” said student Yemi Kelani.

Nine schools were downgraded this year because they didn’t score high enough on the academic gaps indicator. George wasn’t among them, but Brown International Academy, an elementary school in northwest Denver, was. Kate Tynan-Ridgeway, a third-grade teacher at Brown, wrote an opinion piece in the Denver Post calling the ratings misleading.

Sixty-one other teachers signed on in support of the opinion piece.

If Brown were located a few blocks west and over the border of Jefferson County, where there is no academic gaps indicator, Tynan-Ridgeway said, it’d be green and not yellow.

“The achievement gap worries us all,” she said. “As educators, we’re differentiating all the time.”

But Tynan-Ridgeway said that with the indicator highlighting the performance of traditionally underserved students, “it feels to me that the district is saying those kids are far more important than what could potentially be the bulk of your student body.”

Boasberg responded with an opinion piece of his own explaining why the indicator exists. He wrote that it’s already showing promising results: The number of would-be green schools with poor indicator scores dropped by two-thirds from the hold-harmless year to this year.

The district is still fine-tuning the indicator, Boasberg said, and it’s possible more tweaks are coming. One issue, he said, is whether it should apply to schools where nearly all students belong to traditionally underserved groups. This year, the district decided not to downgrade the overall ratings of three high-poverty schools even though they did poorly on the indicator.

Looking ahead

With such high stakes as funding, enrollment and even possible closure attached to school ratings, there are plenty of theories about the reasons behind the frequent changes. Is the district embellishing the ratings to make its schools look better and insulate itself from criticism about closing low-performers? Or is it inventing new ways to drive traditional schools’ ratings down so it can justify replacing them with charter schools?

Boasberg insisted it’s neither. But he said he understands why people hold such passionate, and often conflicting, opinions about the way the district rates its schools.

“There’s no perfect way to do it,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s enormously helpful for teachers, for parents and for school communities to have a school performance framework that takes data from many different sources and brings it together in a way that’s understandable.”

While the district debates what to do about the academic gaps indicator and gives schools another year to get used to higher early literacy cut points, there is one change that’s definitely happening for the 2018 framework. After lowering the bar in 2016 to essentially give schools a reprieve from the new and rigorous PARCC tests, all cut points for the literacy and math tests will go up next year, inching blue and green ratings a bit further out of reach.

growing enrollment

Answering a call: Here’s who raised their hands to open a new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Leaders of two stand-alone Denver schools and one local school network sent letters to the district this week signaling their intent to apply to open a new middle school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood in northeast Denver. The leaders were responding to a call from Denver Public Schools for schools interested in filling that need.

All of the letters come from leaders of highly rated semi-autonomous district schools. They include:

  • High Tech Elementary School, a stand-alone school located in Stapleton. It currently serves students in preschool through fifth grade and is interested in expanding to serve students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as well. High Tech uses a “technology-enhanced, personalized, project-based approach” to teaching its students, according to its letter.
  • Beacon Network Schools, which currently runs two middle schools in Denver: Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver and Grant Beacon in south-central Denver. The Beacon schools also focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. The new Stapleton school would be the network’s third middle school.
  • Denver Green School, a stand-alone school serving students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver. The Denver Green School’s hands-on curriculum is focused on “what sustainability means in relation to our classrooms, our community, our planet, and ourselves,” according to its letter. The new Stapleton school would be its first expansion.

Denver Public Schools announced last month its intention to open a new middle school in Stapleton in the fall of 2019. Data from this year’s school-choice process showed rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver, including Stapleton, officials said. That’s a different trend than in many other parts of the city, where enrollment is expected to decrease.

But instead of simply opening its own new schools, the Denver district uses a process known as the “Call for New Quality Schools.” The call is essentially a request for proposals for new schools. Leaders and developers of district-run and charter schools submit applications, and the Denver school board decides which to approve and give coveted space in district buildings.

For Stapleton, the district is looking for a middle school that could serve up to 600 students. It would start with sixth grade in August 2019 and add a grade every year. The exact location of the school has yet to be determined. The district has said the school “should be designed to be diverse and inclusive,” though it has not laid out any specific criteria.

Letters of intent from those interested in applying were due Monday. Full applications are due Oct. 26. The school board is set to make a decision in December.

The call process is in line with the district’s “portfolio strategy” approach. That involves cultivating a mix of different types of schools – district-run schools, independent charter schools, and others – and letting families choose. It also involves closing schools with low test scores, though the district is taking a break from that controversial strategy this year.

None of the proposed Stapleton middle schools would be charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The area – officially known as the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone – already has two charter and three district-run middle schools.

The proposed schools would likely be “innovation” schools, which are district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. That means they can waive certain state and district rules to do things such as set their own calendars or employ their teachers on a year-to-year basis.

The Beacon schools are innovation schools that are also part of an “innovation management organization,” which gives them more budgetary flexibility than regular innovation schools.

Denver Green School is an innovation school that is also part of a district-approved “innovation zone.” The zone is similar to an innovation management organization in that the schools within it have the same budgetary flexibility. But it’s different because the zone is overseen by a nonprofit board of directors that can hire and fire its school leaders.

High Tech is an innovation school, but it is not part of a zone or a management organization.

To open a new school in Stapleton, the Beacon network would have to jump through one fewer hoop than the other two. That’s because the school board has already approved Beacon to open three more middle schools. The network has not specified where or when it would open those schools, and it could take one “off the shelf” to apply for placement in Stapleton.

By contrast, Denver Green School and High Tech would have to first submit an application to open a new middle school and then apply for placement in Stapleton.

More seats

New data, shifting plans: Denver district calls for new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
McAuliffe International School.

Six months after Denver district leaders opted not to seek proposals for new schools serving specific grades and neighborhoods, they changed course Wednesday, announcing plans for a new middle school on the north side of the growing Stapleton neighborhood.

District officials said the move was prompted by data gleaned from this year’s school choice process showing rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver. That localized trend contrasts with forecasts of shrinking enrollment in the district overall.

The new school will open in the fall of 2019 and serve students in a swath of northeast Denver the district calls the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Jennifer Holladay, the district’s associate chief of portfolio management, said while the district compiles enrollment projections each fall, a separate look at enrollment data this spring informed Wednesday’s announcement.

“It became clear that we are going to need some extra seats in Greater Park Hill/Stapleton,” she said. “We always learn something new through the choice season.”

The neighborhoods’ enrollment zone currently includes five schools with middle grades: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, Bill Roberts K-8, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

Students in enrollment zones — a tool the district has used with mixed success to increase integration — are guaranteed a seat at one school in the zone, but not necessarily the one closest to them.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Wednesday’s announcement functions as an invitation to prospective school developers — whether charter or district-run — to propose middle schools for that location. The process, officially known as the “Call for New Quality Schools” usually happens in the spring, but in this case will unfold during late summer and fall. The school board will pick from the applicants in December.

Holladay said the call for applicants is open both to school operators that have previously won approval to open new schools but haven’t yet opened those schools and to those submitting new proposals. She said operators that currently have district approval to open middle schools are the DSST charter network and the Beacon Network, which runs two innovation schools in the district: Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon.

Parent Amanda Allshouse, who is president of the neighborhood organization Stapleton United Neighbors, said there’s definitely a need for a new middle school in the area. She said many parents there expressed a desire for another large comprehensive middle school similar to McAuliffe at a community forum attended by Superintendent Tom Boasberg in May.

The high-performing school is the largest of the five middle schools included in the enrollment zone and one of the district’s most sought-after placements for incoming sixth-graders.

Stapleton resident Dipti Nevrekar is another parent hoping the zone’s new middle school will be like McAuliffe, with an array of sports, activities and arts offerings — and an International Baccalaureate program that will feed into the one at Northfield High School. She said her son was lucky enough to gain entrance to McAuliffe for the coming year, but several of his friends were not.

The number of sixth-graders in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone is expected to jump by more than 100 students by the fall of 2019, to more than 900 total. The new middle school will start with just sixth-graders and add a grade each year, eventually maxing out at 500 to 600 students.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
District data shows projected increases in middle school enrollment in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

The new middle school will be the district’s first to open since the citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee released recommendations last winter aimed at increasing integration in Denver schools. One piece of the recommendations calls for the district to evaluate all new school applicants on their ability to appeal to a diverse student body, create a diverse teaching staff, and use curriculum that takes into account students’ cultural backgrounds.

Holladay, who said the new middle school will be designed to be diverse, said the district will create a way to measure such components in the coming months.