Of Denver’s 205 schools, just 38% met the district’s expectations of quality this year, according to school ratings released Friday. That’s fewer than last year, when 43% of schools were rated “blue” or “green,” the top two ratings on the district’s color-coded scale.

Twenty-seven schools — 13% — this year are “red,” the district’s lowest rating. That’s up from 10% of schools last year.

This is the second year in a row that fewer schools received the highest ratings and more schools received the lowest rating as the district raised the bar for schools. In 2018, elementary and middle schools were affected. This year, high schools faced new standards.

“We believe it is incredibly important to have high expectations for our students and to support our schools to meet those expectations,” Superintendent Susana Cordova said. “It’s what I wanted as a parent and what I want as an educator. This is a reflection of the incredibly high standards that we have for our schools.”

The ratings are important because Denver Public Schools uses them to determine which schools are struggling and need extra funding, and which schools are so consistently falling short that more drastic action is warranted. In the past, the school board has voted to close schools with persistently low ratings, though that didn’t happen last year

The school board is expected to discuss Monday what to do about the district’s red schools. 

These ratings land amid growing concerns about how they’re calculated. With a new superintendent at the district’s helm, Denver is in the midst of reimagining its rating system, called the “school performance framework,” or SPF. 

The current system relies heavily on state test scores. Some educators and parents say doing so fails to take into account the other attributes that determine school quality. Student test scores also often correlate with family income. Denver acknowledges that by more heavily weighting how much academic progress a school’s students make in a year, rather than how many students are on grade level. That means some schools with good ratings still have lots of students below grade level.

Other complaints about the ratings include that the formula is too complicated, and that yearly tweaks make quality a moving target. Some people claim the ratings make schools look better than they are. Others claim the ratings make schools look worse.

The Colorado Department of Education has its own school rating system that is used by most districts in the state. Members of the State Board just approved changes to that system that would make it harder to earn a top rating, starting in 2021. Denver’s rating system predates the state’s and takes more factors into account. The Denver teachers union has called on the district to discontinue its system and use the state’s instead, as have several Denver school board candidates.

State officials also use school ratings to determine when to intervene if schools don’t meet the quality bar year after year. This year, two Denver schools — Abraham Lincoln High School and Manual High School — could face state intervention. 

Lincoln actually received a higher rating under Denver’s system than under the state’s system, and Denver plans to appeal to have it changed. (Denver typically asks that all its school ratings be substituted for the state ratings.) The state system relies heavily on SAT scores, which Cordova said is a particularly difficult test for students who are not yet fluent in English, a category that includes many Lincoln students. She believes the district’s rating, which includes a broader set of measures of college and career readiness, better reflects student achievement at the southwest Denver school.

One thing that makes Denver’s rating system unique is an “academic gaps indicator,” sometimes referred to as an “equity indicator.” The indicator measures how well certain groups of students score on state tests compared with benchmarks and with their peers. The groups include students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students learning English as a second language.

If students in those groups aren’t meeting benchmarks or if the gaps between, say, students of color and white students are too big, a school’s rating will decline. Schools must be rated blue or green on the academic gaps indicator to be blue or green overall.

A blue rating means a school is “distinguished.” A green rating means it “meets expectations.” A yellow rating means a school needs some improvement, an orange rating means it needs more improvement, and a red rating means it needs significant improvement.

For an elementary or middle school to be blue or green this year, 50% of its students had to score on grade-level on last spring’s state literacy and math tests. Districtwide, only 42.8% of students scored on grade-level in literacy, and only 32.7% scored that way in math.

For high schools to get one of the top ratings, 60% of students needed to meet grade-level expectations in literacy and math, and half needed to do so on state science tests.

This year, 11 schools had their ratings downgraded from green to yellow because they fell short in the academic gaps indicator. They are: Cowell Elementary, University Park Elementary, Southmoor Elementary, Isabella Bird Community School, Merrill Middle School, Morey Middle School, Skinner Middle School, KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, East High School, Thomas Jefferson High School, and DSST: Cole High School.

Denver Public Schools first introduced the academic gaps indicator in 2016 on a hold-harmless basis. The next year, nine schools had their ratings downgraded from green to yellow. Last year, 22 schools had their ratings downgraded.

Denver encourages families to use school choice, and many families look at school ratings when considering their choices. Those decisions matter to school budgets. Fewer students could mean less per-pupil funding. And less funding could mean a school is forced to cut the teachers or programs that would make it a desirable choice in the first place.

Cordova, who has pledged to better serve the low-income students of color who make up the majority of the district’s students, said the district uses the data reflected in the ratings to build school environments that are “more supportive and more rigorous.”

She acknowledged that seeing a poor rating can be discouraging for teachers and principals who have worked very hard.

“We know when we look at our test scores that we’re making progress and that it’s not enough,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing. It means we need to rally around our schools and do everything we can to accelerate their performance.”

Find your school’s rating below or on the district website.