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 the most current year, 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.

Correction: Feb. 20, 2018: This story has been updated to more accurately describe how the district will rate schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

reaction

Some see a victory in Denver pausing its school closure policy, others a ‘slap in the face’

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
Hasira "H-Soul" Ashemu leads the Black Parent Empowerment Summit at Denver's Shorter Community AME Church in May 2018.

The day after the Denver school board decided to take a break from its controversial school closure policy, the district sent an email to some parents who oppose closing schools.

“I am reaching out to you with great news,” the email said. It went on to explain that the policy would be on hold next year while the school board conducts a districtwide listening tour to get feedback on how the district should define success and what it should do when schools fall short.

But not everyone who got the email thinks the news is great.

Some parents and community members are suspicious of the board’s motives, theorizing that it’s a political stunt to curry favor with voters. They feel burned by board members who disregarded their pleas to give struggling schools another chance, and they’re skeptical that gathering more public opinion will change officials’ minds.

“To me, that feels like a slap in the face,” said parent Beth Bianchi, whose daughter was a student at Gilpin Montessori School in 2016 when the school board voted to close it.

Those who support the district’s aggressive approach are wary for different reasons. They wonder if pausing the policy will mean students in struggling schools won’t get the help they need. Instead of closing or replacing low-performing schools, the board will now require principals to give written and verbal reports about their improvement strategies.

“I hope the school board is willing to hold schools accountable for those plans,” said Krista Spurgin, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which supports many of the district’s strategies. She said that while she understands that school closure can be difficult, “we can’t have kids sitting in schools unprepared for two, three, four years.”

Board member Lisa Flores, who proposed the pause, said it was partly prompted by a desire to reflect on how the 2-year-old policy has played out and how it might need to change. The first year was rocky, especially when it came to Gilpin, an elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that had low test scores and dwindling enrollment, but also fierce defenders.

The backlash against the closure of Gilpin was loud. It bolstered an already growing opposition to using school closure as an improvement strategy, which the district had been doing even before the policy was in place. Over the past 13 years, the district has consolidated, closed, or replaced more than 50 low-performing schools. Critics say it’s disruptive and demoralizing, and disproportionately affects poor communities.

A year after the Gilpin vote, the opposition won a political victory. With four of the seven school board seats up for grabs, Denver voters elected one candidate opposed to closures and two who questioned how they were being done. An incumbent who’d supported closures also won.

Even though the district didn’t close any schools in 2017, the opposition continued to gain steam. More community groups formed to fight against closures and against the district’s continued approval of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Hasira Ashemu is co-director of one of the groups, called Our Voice, Our Schools. Spurred by a report that chronicled how black teachers in Denver feel mistreated and black students’ needs go unmet, the group recently hosted a “Black Parent Empowerment Summit.” It drew more than 350 people to talk about improving education for Denver’s students of color.

Ashemu, who goes by “H-Soul,” said the group welcomes the pause of the closure policy. He sees it as a sign that community pushback is having an impact on district leaders.

“We know this is not a result of DPS coming to some enlightened position around school closures,” Ashemu said. “We know this is directly related to communities organizing.”

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, agrees. She said many teachers are concerned about school closures, and pausing the policy is “a step in the right direction.” However, she hesitated to call it an outright win.

“We’ve gone through all this upheaval,” she said, referring to a host of reform efforts meant to improve Denver schools, including closure. “Some things are marginally better, but it is worth everything we’ve gone through to get there?”

District officials regularly point to statistics that show Denver students are learning more now than in the past. Students posted record academic gains on state literacy and math tests last year, and the percentage of kindergarten through third-grade students identified as reading significantly below grade level is dropping. More high school students are taking college-level classes, and 51 percent of graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2017.

But the district still faces significant challenges. About 38 percent of Denver third-graders met expectations on the 2017 state literacy test, meaning they could read at grade level. That’s far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders meet that bar by 2020.

The district also has wide achievement gaps: White and middle-class students score higher on state and national tests than students of color and those from low-income families. And while Denver’s graduation rate has risen, it lags behind the rates of other large Colorado districts.

Katherine Murphy, a former Gilpin parent, is among those who see the break from the school closure policy as a piecemeal solution. That’s because the policy relies on the district’s school rating system to flag the lowest-performing schools for closure.

The rating system faced significant criticism this past year from some who believed it was too harsh and others who thought it was too lenient. Until the district fixes its ratings, Murphy – who is a member of another community group critical of the district, called Our Denver, Our Schools – said she doesn’t think pausing the policy will make much difference in the long run.

“It’s good on you for making a move toward the right direction,” she said of the school board, “but we’re still not addressing the root problems of your system, and you’re not doing enough.”

Christine Campbell of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization that follows Denver’s reforms, said she was surprised by the move. But she also said she understands where it’s coming from. It seems, she said, that district leaders are taking more heat lately from both those who think they’re being too aggressive in their quest to improve schools and those who think they’re not being aggressive enough.

In line with Denver’s national reputation as a reform leader, Campbell said the district should seize the moment to take stock of the progress and pushback and, along with the community, come up with an innovative way to help struggling schools going forward.

“I think Denver is in a nice position to say, ‘What could the next thing be?’” Campbell said.

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.