Hundreds of Colorado schools are likely to lose their top rating under changes approved by the State Board of Education Thursday, and those that still qualify likely will serve fewer students in poverty.

Advocates of this change say it’s a step toward aligning Colorado’s school rating system with the realities of student achievement on state tests and gives parents better information about how schools are performing. Opponents, who included many district leaders and the state’s largest teachers union, accused state officials of imposing arbitrary standards for political ends and said that downgrading schools demoralizes teachers and students and makes it harder to recruit effective educators.

The board voted 5-2 to toughen the standards despite vigorous lobbying from people who said they would prefer a complete overhaul of the accountability system to move it away from standardized tests rather than see the bar raised within the current school performance framework.

“If we don’t tell the truth about what is happening to our kids, there are large numbers of kids who will not be served because the information is not out there,” said Board Chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, who voted in favor of the changes. “This really is about truth-telling.”

State ratings are based on student performance on standardized tests taken in the spring. This year, just 45.8% of third through eighth-graders met or exceeded grade-level expectations on literacy tests, and just 34.7% of students did so in math. Yet 72% of Colorado elementary and middle schools received the state’s highest rating: “performance.”

This discrepancy, which raised concerns for State Board members and education advocates, derives from the large role that growth scores play in determining school ratings. Growth is a measure of how much progress students make compared with their academic peers. Many experts consider it a better way to look at the work that teachers do in the classroom, and it has accounted for 60% of schools’ ratings, while achievement — students’ actual test scores — has accounted for 40%.

Test scores are strongly correlated with race, ethnicity, and family income, and over a year of debate and public feedback, State Board members agreed that growth should continue to make up a large portion of school ratings. But growth must lead somewhere. That is, students, regardless of where they start out, will eventually need to read, write, and do math to certain standards if they’re going to be successful in life.

Going forward, a new “on track” metric will account for 10% of school ratings — this measures whether students are making enough progress to move up a level within two years, such that a student who partially meets expectations in third grade would be approaching expectations in fifth grade and meeting them by seventh grade — and schools will need to show higher overall achievement to qualify for the state’s top rating.

In adopting Scenario C, the State Board decided not to add a “distinguished” rating for the top performing schools but set a higher bar for “performance” than other alternatives.

The changes affect the ratings for elementary and middle schools and will go into effect in 2021. In 2020, schools will receive an official rating based on current methodology as well as information about what their rating would be under the new system.

A state analysis found that just 53% of Colorado schools would have received the top rating this year under the new policy, a difference of more than 200 schools. Those schools would instead have landed in the second-highest category. The number of schools in the bottom two categories would be largely unchanged. Those bottom-tier schools face state intervention, including possible closure, if they don’t improve.

Schools in the second category don’t face sanctions, but they also don’t get outside help that the lowest-performing schools do.

Colorado Department of Education

The change also appears likely to make it even harder for schools serving students in poverty to earn the top rating. This year’s top-rated schools on average had 35% of their students eligible for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Schools that would still make the cut on average have just 30% of their students in poverty. Similarly — unless something changes — schools that earn the top rating under the new system will serve a lower percentage of English language learners.

Board members who supported the changes said they hoped to see better results going forward.

“I believe that higher standards do lead to higher achievement,” said board Vice Chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican.

Under the current system, statewide literacy scores have been inching up, even as sixth-grade math scores have been trending down. Some schools that have been targeted for state intervention have been able to make significant improvement, while others have not.

Board member Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat whose district includes the long-struggling Adams 14 district, described parents pleading for accurate information so they could better support their children’s schools.

Two board members, Val Flores, a Democrat from Denver, and Joyce Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, voted no. Both Flores and Rankin said that the entire accountability system needs an overhaul — something the Colorado Education Association and many superintendents support — while Schroeder countered that changing the ratings does not block a larger conversation that is already under way.

Rankin said the changes did not feel meaningful to her, and she was troubled by the degree to which experts in the field disagreed with each other.

“We should not change something just to make it align,” she said. “This should not be anything but a real measurement that we’re willing to sign onto. And I haven’t heard anyone say that it is.”

Flores said that too many schools don’t have the resources to properly serve all their students and that more stringent ratings will just lead to more focus on test prep, at the expense of art, music, gym — and joy.

“You want to know the truth? The truth is that we first have to increase the amount of money for every child to succeed,” Flores said.