More Denver schools this year earned the top two ratings on the district’s five-color scale than ever before, a spike officials say reflects the record academic progress students are making.
However, nine schools that otherwise would have scored top ratings were downgraded for having large academic disparities between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers under a new rule meant to spur schools to close those gaps.
In all, 122 of Denver Public Schools’ more than 200 schools are rated “blue” or “green,” according to results released Thursday. That’s up from 95 schools last year.
In addition, just 10 schools are “red,” the lowest rating. That’s down from 31 such schools last year and is the lowest number of red schools since DPS began using its color scale in 2008.
The results bring the state’s largest school district closer to its ambitious goal for 80 percent of its 92,000 students to attend schools rated blue or green by the year 2020. Nearly 62 percent of students attend blue and green schools this year.
The ratings are largely based on tests students took last school year, including early literacy tests taken by students in kindergarten through third grade; state reading, writing and math tests taken by students in third through ninth grade; and SAT tests taken by high schoolers.
The ratings system, known as the School Performance Framework, more heavily weights academic growth, which measures students’ progress over time, than academic proficiency, which measures whether students can read, write and do math at grade-level.
Some advocates and school leaders have taken issue with the formula, arguing that schools with low proficiency rates shouldn’t be top-rated no matter how impressive their growth, especially since parents use the ratings to choose schools for their kids. However, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other officials maintain that what matters most is how much students improve.
“This past year, we showed our highest growth ever on state assessments, and that growth is coming through” in the ratings, Boasberg said.
Schools are awarded points based on a long list of factors and the total number of points earned puts them in one of five color categories: blue, green, yellow, orange or red.
Under a policy adopted by the school board last year and revised earlier this year, schools with consistently low ratings — such as back-to-back red ratings or a red rating preceded by two orange ones — can be closed or replaced. Last year, the board voted to close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and restart two others: Greenlee and John Amesse.
This year, just one school meets the criteria for closure or restart: Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver charter school that serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school earned a red rating this year for the second time in a row.
But Boasberg said Cesar Chavez won’t be closed as a result of the policy, known as the School Performance Compact. Instead, he said, the school will shutter at the end of the school year because it did not meet the academic performance conditions of its charter.
Three other schools also earned red ratings for the second year in a row, but they won’t be subject to the policy, either. Two of them — Compass Academy, a charter middle school, and Joe Shoemaker, a district-run elementary — are too new to qualify for closure. Both opened in 2015, and Boasberg explained the policy requires at least three years of data be considered.
Hallett Academy, another district-run elementary, is safe from closure because of its ratings history, Boasberg said. For this year only, the district put in place a rule that schools that were rated green or higher in 2014 would not be eligible for closure no matter their ratings in 2016 and 2017. (Schools were not rated in 2015 because of a switch in state tests.) Hallett was green in 2014 before dropping to red in 2016 and 2017.
However, those three schools are among ten that may be subject to the policy next year if their ratings don’t improve, according to the district. The others are Abraham Lincoln High, Lake International School, Smith Elementary, Math and Science Leadership Academy, DCIS at Montbello, KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School and Venture Prep.
The ten schools will receive extra support from the district this year, officials said.
The district’s practice of closing low-performing schools has become an issue in this fall’s school board election. Candidates opposed to the district’s current direction are highly critical of the approach. That no schools are subject to the closure policy this year means three board incumbents will not be put in the difficult position of voting on closing schools just weeks before trying to win reelection.
The nine schools that were downgraded for having large academic gaps between groups of students will also get additional help, according to officials. They are: Bromwell Elementary, Teller Elementary, Edison Elementary, Brown International Academy, Centennial: A School for Expeditionary Learning, Skinner Middle, Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership School high school.
All nine scored enough points to earn green ratings. But a new rule that went into effect this year dictates that in order for schools to be rated blue or green overall, they must score blue or green on an “academic gaps indicator.” The nine schools failed to meet that bar and thus are yellow.
The indicator was introduced last year under a different name, the equity indicator, but was not used in the school rating system. It takes into account factors such as whether a school’s students of color are meeting certain benchmarks, as well as the differences in performance between groups such as English language learners and non-English language learners.
Had the indicator counted last year, 33 schools’ ratings would have been downgraded. That only nine schools were affected this year represents progress, Boasberg said.
“The purpose of the academic gaps measure is to make clear the priority and importance that we place on a school doing everything possible to close its gaps,” he said. To see so many schools improve is “very heartening,” he added.
The district is still fine-tuning some aspects of the indicator. One question the school board will seek to answer in the coming months, Boasberg said, is how to apply it in high-poverty schools where nearly all students belong to traditionally underserved groups and there may not be enough non-low-income students, for example, to meaningfully calculate gaps.
For that reason, he said, the district this year decided not to downgrade from green the overall ratings of three high-poverty schools: Bryant Webster Dual Language ECE-8, Cowell Elementary and STRIVE Prep Westwood middle school.
Even though they earned yellow scores on the academic gaps indicator, Boasberg said applying it “just didn’t seem to make sense” given their student demographics. At Cowell, 397 of the 421 students last year received free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.
The top-rated blue school in the district this year is Steck Elementary in east Denver. The student population at Steck is predominantly white and wealthier.
But in a district where three-quarters of students are children of color and two-thirds qualify for subsidized lunches, there are several blue schools whose populations better reflect the district as a whole.
Among them is Holm Elementary, where 84 percent of students are low-income and the same percentage are children of color. Holm, which is located in southeast Denver, is one of only 18 schools to also earn a blue rating on the academic gaps indicator.
On Thursday morning, district officials stood in Holm’s foyer flanked by blue banners. They were there to announce the ratings for all schools and to celebrate Holm, a historically green school, for achieving blue status for the first time.
“You are an example,” said school board president Anne Rowe, who represents the region. “You are what we are striving for.”
The officials praised principal Jim Metcalfe, who’s led Holm for 23 years and is DPS’s longest-serving school leader. Metcalfe credited his staff, as well as a focus on providing interventions for the school’s youngest readers.
“They did a tremendous job,” he said.
When Metcalfe told his staff the school was blue, he said their reaction was not to rest on their laurels but to continue pushing for improvement.
“They said, ‘Okay, how do we do this better? Can we be more blue?’” Metcalfe said.
Click here for a searchable database of schools and how they measured up.
Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Melanie Asmar on October 12, 2017. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
Photo by Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat