Denver Public Schools (DPS) released results of its School Performance Framework (SPF) measure last month. The SPF provides a color-coded “report card” for each of the nearly 200 schools in DPS. This year brings a marked increase in the number of schools deemed to be meeting or exceeding expectations.
The SPF includes student proficiency and academic growth, as well as student and family engagement and in high school, college and career readiness. Download a pdf of the above chart here.
Growth is measured by how much a student improves academically on standardized tests over a year compared to peers who started at the same place. In the SPF, growth is approximately three times as important as academic proficiency in elementary and middle school and twice the weight of proficiency in high school. These are the same ratios as used last year.
What this means is that schools that are academically “growing” their students—regardless of their overall proficiency—can perform better in the SPF ratings than schools whose students are meeting or exceeding expectations but simply maintaining that proficiency. This reflects the district’s emphasis on increasing student progress, particularly at historically low-performing schools.
“The SPF should be the first thing you check out to make sure it’s a safe place and kids are learning…
And then you have to figure out to what degree…
and what are they learning, and that requires a lot more research.”
-–Van Schoales , CEO, A+ Colorado
Local Schools Performance
The charts included here give an overview of how schools in the northeast Denver area performed on the SPF this year. There are five levels on the rating scale: blue/distinguished, green/meets expectations, yellow/accredited on watch, orange/accredited on priority watch, and red/accredited on probation.
The SPF is used by schools and the district to evaluate school performance, and it is also a resource for families to understand how schools are educating their kids compared to district expectations. But it can be a challenge to serve both purposes. “We are really trying to provide that information in … a more graphical way or just a way that our parents and families want that information to be provided,” said Katherine Beck, senior manager of accountability for DPS’s Accountability Research and Evaluation division. To that end, DPS provides summary reports and detailed reports on each of its schools, available here: http://spf.dpsk12.org/en/2017-spf-ratings/.
But Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, a nonprofit organization that analyzes educational efforts statewide, says that truly understanding all that goes into the SPF is “so complicated [that] I compare it to the IRS tax code.” Once you start to delve into the data—and there are hundreds of data points that go into each school’s rating—it can get overwhelming for families.
According to Schoales, for “good” schools that are in the high green/blue range “the difference really comes down to what the needs of that family and that child are.” He cautions against putting too much emphasis on differences of just a few points between schools. But in the range of “low green, red, yellow and orange, unfortunately, that’s a murky area. It’s hard to know how bad things are,” he added.
Changes This Year in SPF
Each year, DPS adjusts the formula used to determine SPF results to better align with district goals and community needs, said Beck. The ambitious 2020 plan emphasizes five specific areas: increasing quality schools, early literacy, college and career readiness, whole child support, and closing the opportunity gap.
Academic Gaps Indicator
Included within the proficiency and growth scores are measures of “academic gaps,” which evaluate the performance of underserved students—such as poor students, English language learners, students of color, and special education students—compared to their peers. This year, the academic gaps rating is not only made evident with its own indicator, but schools that have failed to meet criteria in that area have been penalized. This is in line with DPS’s emphasis on closing opportunity gaps.
Districtwide, nine schools that would otherwise have achieved a “green/meets expectations” overall rating were knocked down to “yellow/accredited on watch” based on their academic gaps, according to Beck. “Even at some of our highest-performing schools, are all of the students in that school performing at that equally very high level?” asks Beck.
For example, Bromwell Elementary, which has historically been a high green school—and in fact this year achieved a very high 74.48 percent of points on the SPF—has been downgraded to a “yellow” rating due to academic gaps between underserved students and their classmates.
Eight schools in the east Denver area—including Denver Discovery School, Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences and George Washington High School—did not meet expectations for academic gaps, but none lost a green rating based on the indicator alone. Those equity gaps were factored into their overall performance, among other markers, and the aggregate scoring resulted in lower ratings.
Schoales believes the district overemphasizes the importance of the gaps between students. “We think it’s a [bigger] problem to have lower levels of growth and proficiency,” he said. The emphasis on the gaps over general levels of growth and proficiency, “provides, frankly, a disincentive for schools to have a diverse population, which we think is a huge problem.”
Early Literacy Measures
Another significant change this year for elementary schools is the inclusion of early literacy measures. These are tests for students in grades K–3, and Beck says that they were added because early literacy “wasn’t as well captured in previous SPFs.” She added that the measures used were “ones that are focused on historically disadvantaged learners—students of color, students on free and reduced lunch, English language learners, and special education students.”
But according to Schoales, “those [early literacy] tests don’t line up with what the district and the state have said is standard in terms of kids’ reading and writing.” In fact, he continued, “we’ve found that there is over a 30 percent difference between results from those tests and state tests/CMAS. That, in turn, dramatically increases the scores on the SPF.” His organization’s analysis found that many schools that were rated highly based on early literacy tests—which students can take repeatedly—show growth and proficiency that are below state benchmarks. “The SPF misrepresents what a quality school is because of those indicators,” said Schoales.
With DPS’s ambitious goals to ensure that 80 percent of the district’s third-graders are reading at or above grade level and 80 percent of its students attend a green or blue school by 2020, the district will be setting the bar higher next year. Beck said that the district is moving to more rigorous SPF standards for the statewide testing measures in 2018 and then for early literacy measures in 2019, giving schools plenty of advance notice to rise to the challenge.