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.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”