DPS should put families first in tough call on school ratings

Everyone seems to agree that there’s a problem with some of this year’s elementary-school ratings in Denver. The disagreement comes over what to do about it.

The Denver Public Schools uses its School Performance Framework (SPF) to rate the annual performance of all of its schools. Since DPS started using the SPF as a color-coded school scorecard in 2008, it’s generally been considered an innovative, comprehensive, and useful tool show how well schools are helping students learn. It uses a variety of measures—from test scores to student engagement—to determine each school’s overall rating (ranging from Blue = “Distinguished” to Red = “Probation”).

But something’s off with this year’s ratings for some DPS elementary schools. They’ve essentially been graded on too soft of a curve.

According to this Chalkbeat story, the issue is the “cut score” the district used to assess the literacy rates of each school’s third-graders using the local standardized tests called “iStation.” Everyone has come to realize the cut scores for that test are too low, thereby inflating the school’s literacy score for the SPF. Several community groups raised the issue, and the district has agreed.

So the question at hand: What do we do about it?

The community groups have asked the district to “immediately issue corrected School Performance Framework (SPF) data on each elementary school in the district.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg wants to wait until next year. He told Chalkbeat that giving elementary schools revised ratings this year using a different cut score would be “fundamentally unfair and make very little sense…If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” 

I know firsthand how much time and excruciating attention to detail goes into the SPF every year. The district works very hard to make it as precise and useful as it can be. The ratings mean a lot—as they should—to every educator at every school, and they have meaningful consequences—as they also should—in terms of rewards and sanctions.

So I completely understand the district’s reluctance to change the rules “mid-game.”  

But I still agree with the community groups. And this, from their letter to the district, is their most compelling argument: “Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable.”

The district’s first responsibility is to its families. They deserve the most complete and honest picture of their schools’ performance that the district can provide, especially when it comes time for them to pick a school for their children. That time begins Feb. 1, with the opening of the School Choice period in Denver.

It may not be practical, or fair, to issue entirely new ratings for all of Denver’s 100-plus elementary schools in the next six weeks. But it does seem practical, and right, to give parents better information about the elementary schools they have to choose from. That could be as simple as adding a note to each elementary SPF scorecard online that clearly presents the data and explains the issue. In School Finder, the SPF could break out for parents each school’s scores on iStation (which measures literacy progress from kindergarten to third grade) and the school’s third-grade literacy scores on PARCC (the state-mandated test that students begin taking at third grade and is considered a critical, high-bar measure of student proficiency).

DPS is lucky to have a community that supports and votes for leaders committed to accountability and an equitable, parent-focused choice system. These are hard issues that have ripped cities apart. So when this community asks for an equitable, parent-focused solution to an accountability problem, the community should get it.


More Comments