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.

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she said. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

Still others participate because they live in “enrollment zones,” which are essentially big school boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in enrollment zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. Many families who live in zones use the choice process to increase the chances they’ll get into their preferred school.

The district added three more enrollment zones this year, bringing the total number to 14 citywide.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid up to $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson as much as $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

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Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works, a district spokesman said.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the contract says $60,000 is the maximum amount Antwan Wilson will be paid. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works.