DPS lowers the bar on a standard that would have dropped 45 percent of school ratings

Denver Public Schools is making a last-minute change to how it calculates its color-coded school ratings for this academic year by lowering the bar on one key measure.

Preschoolers play. (Photo by Dylan McCoy)
Preschoolers play. (Photo by Dylan McCoy)
Preschoolers play. (Photo by Dylan McCoy)

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Melanie Asmar on October 19, 2016

Denver Public Schools is making a last-minute change to how it calculates its color-coded school ratings for this academic year by lowering the bar on one key measure.

The adjustment — which involves scores on state standardized tests in math and English — comes after school leaders were given preliminary ratings last week and raised concerns.

Those ratings, obtained by Chalkbeat, show that before the change DPS is adopting, about 45 percent of schools would have dropped at least one color on DPS’s five-color scale. About 38 percent would have stayed the same, while about 17 percent would have gone up. The district’s color ratings range from a high of “blue” to a low of “red.”

DPS officials have long known students’ scores on new, more rigorous math and English tests were likely to be lower than on previous state tests. But officials were not planning on tweaking the rating system as a result, reasoning that the new tests are more in line with what students are expected to know and lowering the bar would paint a misleading picture.

But DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that district officials changed their minds after seeing how the ratings shook out.

“When you talk about a framework in the absence of data, your discussion is going to be a lot less rich than when you have real data that makes you aware of issues that, on a more abstract and theoretical level, you’re not aware of,” he said.

The change relates to students’ status scores, meaning how many students met or exceeded expectations on state tests, known as PARCC. Status scores are one ingredient that goes into a school’s rating. Growth scores — or how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers — are another and count for more.

Because the way the state calculates growth has stayed the same despite the switch to the new tests, those scores haven’t been impacted by the tests’ increased rigor the way status scores have. That’s why the district is focusing on the latter, Boasberg said.

Here’s what DPS is proposing to do and why:

In the past, the percentage of students who had to meet or exceed expectations for a school to earn a high DPS rating ranged by grade level and subject between 20 and 50 percent, Boasberg said. The preliminary ratings released last week used those same cut points.

Once school principals saw the ratings, Boasberg said they raised concerns about using different cut points for different grade levels and subjects. While doing so made sense for the old state tests, on which younger students tended to do better than older students, he said it makes less sense for the new, more consistent PARCC tests.

And while DPS’s rating system has long been tougher than the state system, Boasberg indicated some principals wondered whether it was too tough. For example, he said, they told the district it didn’t seem fair that a school where, say, 40 percent of third-graders met or exceeded expectations on the state English test could get a low DPS rating when an average of only 37 percent of Colorado third-graders met that bar.

As a result, the district is planning to recalculate its ratings using cut points that range from 20 percent to 40 percent, instead of 50 percent, Boasberg said. However, in a letter to principals Wednesday obtained by Chalkbeat, he warned the cut points for all tests would rise to 50 percent in 2018.

The district is aiming to provide recalculated ratings to school leaders by Oct. 21 and release them publicly on Oct. 27. Boasberg said he expects “very few” schools’ ratings to change. Even so, he said, “the consistency and coherence of the (rating system) is important. We didn’t feel it was right to ignore thoughtful and well-grounded concerns about that … even if it means extremely little difference for most schools.”

At a school board meeting Monday, before district staff decided to lower the cut points, board members said they worried how families would react to drops in color ratings.

“Let’s say you had a school that’s been green for a couple of years,” said board president Anne Rowe. “This comes out and that school is orange. As a parent, I might say, ‘Whoa! What happened to my school?’ My question is, ‘How do we communicate: what does that mean?’”

Research shows families rely on the rating system, known as the School Performance Framework, when making choices about where to send their children. And because of Denver’s universal school choice system, students can request to enroll in any school in the city. Since school budgets are based on enrollment, their choices have financial consequences.

“I’m really worried about public perception, where a lot of people just look at that color and make decisions about schools,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Boasberg told the board it will be important to caution families about the quirks of this year’s ratings. Those cautions include that because last year was just the second year Colorado students took PARCC, only one year of growth data is available.

In the past, DPS has used two years’ worth of growth data to calculate schools’ ratings. The district believes using more data smooths out one-time anomalies that can cause scores to swing up or down, he said.

Since growth counts more than status in DPS’s rating system, having just one year of data means schools are likely to see bigger swings this year, Boasberg explained.

This year’s ratings are especially high-stakes because the district plans to use them to help make decisions about whether to close persistently low-performing schools under a new DPS policy called the School Performance Compact.

The policy uses three criteria to determine whether to close a school. The first is whether that school ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all schools based on multiple years of ratings.

The board is currently scheduled to vote in December on whether to close schools.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.