Denver Public Schools retooling equity measure, presses forward on scoring schools

The reform-minded district is using the equity indicator to shine a spotlight on educational disparities and encourage change at the school-level.

Greenlee Elementary is one of four schools that could face closure. (Photo by Greenlee)

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat 

Denver Public Schools is moving forward with plans to hold schools accountable through a new measure meant to gauge how well they are educating traditionally underserved students, but not before making changes to address concerns from principals and other school leaders.

At a work session Monday, two school board members objected to making the so-called “equity indicator” count toward schools’ overall district quality ratings starting this fall, saying the district was moving too fast. The board eventually reached consensus, backing Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s desire to press forward even as he acknowledged the risks.

The reform-minded district is using the equity indicator to shine a spotlight on educational disparities and encourage change at the school-level. Although DPS’s traditionally underserved students have posted gains on state tests, gaps separating those students from their more privileged peers persist or are widening.

The new measure takes into account the test scores and graduation rates of students of color, low-income students, English language learners and special education students. The district introduced the measure last year, and made schools’ scores public.

But because it was new, the equity rating didn’t count toward a school’s overall rating on Denver’s color-coded school rating system, known as the school performance framework.

The plan all along was to change that starting this fall, based in part on results of state tests students are about to take. Schools’ equity ratings follow the same scale as the overall ratings: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red (the lowest).

Beginning this fall, schools will need to score green or above on equity to be green or blue overall. Several schools have work to do: Of the 82 DPS schools that were blue or green overall last year, 33 were below green on equity.

Two-dozen DPS schools earned the lowest possible equity score last year — red. The district uses school ratings to help make several important decisions, including whether to close schools that are persistently low-performing.

It’s uncertain how changes coming to the equity indicator will change how schools rank.

While some of the changes are new, others were communicated to school leaders last May, said Grant Guyer, executive director of DPS’s department of accountability, research and evaluation.

Some of the most significant moves, which grew out of school leaders’ concerns, deemphasize achievement gaps within individual schools, instead putting more weight on how particular student groups within schools compare to district targets in proficiency (being at grade level) and growth (how much they’ve improved). 

“This was trying to address the concerns that, ‘Well, maybe I have a big gap, but all of my kids are outperforming the district. Why should I be penalized for a large gap?’” said DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.

DPS said achievement gaps within schools are still included as important measures on overall school ratings system.

Other changes include incorporating early literacy scores into the equity measure, and a greater emphasis on results of tests given to English language learners.

Cordova said that it’s difficult to say whether schools’ equity scores will rise or fall with the changes because the district is tweaking the overall rating system, not just the equity indicator.

The disagreement among board members over the timing of making the equity indicator count was unusual for a board united in support of Boasberg’s brand of education reform.

Board member Mike Johnson, who represents central Denver, said it “feels arbitrary” to hold schools accountable to standards the district is only now establishing. He said the district runs the risk of fewer people buying into the system.

“What we are trying to do is change behavior,” Johnson said. “If you want to change behavior, you need to tell people exactly what you want them to do, give them the tools to do it, and give them opportunity to do it. It just seems we are out of sync in doing that.”

Lisa Flores, who represents northwest and west Denver, voiced support for delaying by a year making the equity indicator count.

Other board members, however, supported moving forward, citing a sense of urgency. Ultimately, the board gave its blessing to Boasberg moving forward as planned. (The decision did not require a school board vote).

District staff said the equity indicator already has led to positive steps, including schools digging more deeply into data, examining causes for gaps and developing plans to take them on.

Boasberg conceded that whether to press forward this year “is a hard question and tough call.”

“But I do think part of what is driving me is that we’ve been at this for a while now,” he said. “And we’ve made some progress but not anywhere near the progress we want to make.”

Boasberg also discussed the societal forces the district faces tackling educational disparities. While teachers and school-leaders are passionate about working with the district’s highest-needs kids, factors ranging from bias to active parents push for giving attention to kids “with more social capital,” a dynamic that plays out at every level of society, he said.

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