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Hannah Maldonado, a first-grade teacher at Barnum Elementary School in Denver, gets a hug from 7-year-old Jayden Gomez, welcoming her back to class, on Feb. 14.

Denver’s school rating system has long been controversial, but the criticism is reaching a fever pitch. Eleven advocacy groups sent a joint letter this week to school district leaders, asking them to revamp how  the district rates its more than 200 schools.

“From constant internal revisions to a lack of public feedback in the tool itself, the past few years have seen swings in results and support,” the letter says. (Read it in full below.)

The groups want the district to gather feedback from the community on how best to measure school quality, and to use that feedback to inform changes to the district’s “school performance framework,” which rates schools on a color-coded scale.

“We believe there is an opportunity for your leadership to take us to the next chapter in building a shared vision for how schools serve students, families, and communities,” the letter says.

The letter comes at a pivotal time for Denver Public Schools. The 93,000-student district has a new superintendent, Susana Cordova, who has said that the current ratings system, while not all bad, is too complicated. One of her stated priorities this spring is to create a “work plan” for making recommendations about how the district holds schools accountable, which includes the school performance framework.

Jennifer Holladay, who oversees school accountability for the district, said the district hopes to share with school principals this fall what a new framework would look like for 2020. District leaders are currently in “listening mode,” she said, and look forward to working with the 11 groups and others to rethink the purpose of the ratings, what they measure, and what the ratings should communicate to families.

“A true reimagining is possible,” Holladay said, “and that is a really significant opportunity for all of us in the Denver Public Schools.”

So what exactly is the SPF, how is it used, and why are there so many complaints about it? We’re here to answer those question as best we can.

What is the school performance framework?

The school performance framework is like a report card for schools. Instead of giving schools a letter grade from A through F, it rates schools on a color-coded scale. Every Denver school, including district-run and charter schools, gets a color rating every year.

It was started in 2008 by then-superintendent Michael Bennet, who left Denver Public Schools in 2009 to become a U.S. senator. (Side note: He is now considering running for president.)

OK. But what does the rating measure?

A school’s rating is based on several factors. The biggest is test scores.

The ratings consider how many of a school’s students scored on grade level on state literacy and math tests that year, as well as how much academic growth students make on the tests year over year. The amount of growth counts more than the raw test scores, because district leaders consider it a better measure of how well a school is teaching its students.

The ratings also take into account things such as how satisfied students and parents are with their school, as measured by an annual survey. High schools are judged on their graduation rates and how many of their graduates must take remedial classes in college, as well.

To shine a light on whether schools are educating all students, the district in 2016 began factoring into the ratings the test scores and graduation rates of students of color, students from low-income families, students learning English as a second language, and students with disabilities. In addition to each group’s test scores, the ratings consider the score gaps between different ethnicities and also between other groups of students.

How does all of that add up to a color rating?

Schools are awarded points in the categories in which they’re measured. For example, the more growth a school’s students made on the tests year over year, the more points that school earns. Its color rating is based on the percentage of total possible points earned.

Blue means a school is distinguished. Blue schools show strong results in each category.

Green means a school is meeting expectations. Green schools show good results in most categories, but have a few areas that need improvement.

Yellow means a school is accredited on watch. Yellow schools show good results in some categories, but have several other areas that need improvement.

Orange means a school is accredited on priority watch. Orange schools have low results overall, with multiple areas that need improvement.

Red means a school is accredited on probation. Red schools have low results overall, with many areas that need improvement.

How is the school performance framework used?

The answer depends on who is using it.

Many families use the ratings to help determine where to send their children. Denver has universal school choice system, which means families can use one application to request to attend any public school — district-run or charter — in the city. District data show families choose blue and green schools more often than they choose red schools.

For the district, the ratings are tied to accountability. The ratings have been one of the factors the district considered in deciding whether to close or replace a school. This year, the district required all “red” schools to submit detailed improvement plans.

The district also gives extra funding to help low-rated schools improve. An independent study recently found that strategy is working, with students at the targeted schools making bigger academic gains than did similar students at other schools.

Who has concerns about all this?

Lots of people have concerns. Parents, teachers, principals, community members, school board members, and even the superintendent have said the system has flaws.

Dissatisfaction with the framework was a common theme in meetings last fall about the superintendent search. After Cordova assumed the top job in January, she began meeting with teachers and principals to ask what they’re excited about and disappointed with. Changes to the school performance framework emerged as one of the top five answers to the latter question.

However, the level of concern differs from person to person. Some people think the entire thing is a terrible idea. Others think the premise is a good one, but that revisions are in order.

Walk me through the different concerns.

Various critics have voiced concerns with the school performance framework, including:

  • It is too complicated, with too many factors feeding into a complex formula.
  • It is a moving target because the district changes that formula frequently.
  • It puts too much emphasis on test scores and not enough on the culture of a school.
  • The district relies too heavily on it to make important decisions.
  • It makes schools look better than they are.
  • It makes schools look worse than they are.

That’s a lot of things. And some of them seem contradictory.

That’s true. Some people think the ratings make schools look better than they are because a school where the percentage of students reading at grade level is below average can still get a high rating if those students are showing lots of year-over-year progress. That’s because the formula weights academic growth more than it does raw test scores.

Other people think the ratings make schools look worse than they are because as of 2017, schools with big test score gaps between different groups of students — students of color and white students, or students who qualify for subsidized school lunches and those who don’t — are penalized. Such schools cannot be rated blue or green, even if the overall percentage of students there who are reading and doing math at grade level is above average.

Is getting rid of the ratings really an option?

Yes and no. In a damning statement released in October, the Denver teachers union called on the district to discontinue its own school performance framework, for many of the reasons stated above, and instead use the school performance framework calculated by the Colorado Department of Education. The state’s framework takes fewer factors into account and does not penalize schools for having large test score gaps between different groups of students.

As such, the district’s ratings tend to be tougher. Every year, Denver Public Schools asks the state to lower its ratings to match the district’s ratings, and the state complies.

“By changing the measures and going away from CDE’s measure, we risk the loss of highly effective teachers, leaders, and families who will go to school districts where their work is recognized and appreciated,” the union’s statement says.

“This will create a loss in opportunities for all students.”

So is there anything good about it?

That depends on who you ask. The 11 advocacy groups that signed the letter do not think the district should scrap its own school performance framework.

“Despite its shortcomings, [it] has helped foster a culture in Denver where families ask important questions about school quality and the district makes decisions with public facing tools,” the letter says. “We believe the time has come to build what is next for our collective future.”

Ultimately, the decision rests with district leaders. Here’s what Cordova said about the rating system at a forum in December when she was the sole finalist for the superintendent job:

I think the SPF is too complicated. I think it’s hard to understand. I think there have been too many changes with it.

Some of the positives that have been true with the SPF, I think it has helped us name higher expectations that we believe are important for our kids to be truly ready for the next step. … It’s helped our schools to consider how are we doing with all our of kids — not just the overall, but with subgroups of students.

How should we think about school quality in the future? I think there are other things the SPF doesn’t measure — you know, I’m a DPS parent — that I think are important. I think the culture and climate in a school are important. How do you measure that? I’m not exactly sure how you would get that to a place where you can turn it into a metric that you crunch.

And so frankly, I think it would be good for us to think about, ‘Are there ways to have multiple steps in talking about school quality?’ Some of the pieces that are around the academic performance, the things things that are easier to crunch — and then some of the things we care about as a community: the safety, the discipline, the culture and climate, how welcome students feel, how welcome families feel, some of the things that are more observational in nature that are probably not going to be as easy to turn into just a score.

There are places that do a really nice job with this. In England, they have a countrywide approach to what they call school inspections, where it’s more a formative way to say, ‘How is a school doing?’ They use other school teams to come visit, to give feedback around that. I think that’s something that’s really intriguing.

Read the letter from the advocacy groups below.

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

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