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Denver’s SPF: Promise Kept, Now Time for Version 2.0

By Van Schoales

Denver Public Schools (DPS) kept the promise made last winter to repair the mistakes made on the 2017 School Performance Framework (SPF) and to raise the bar for what makes a high quality school.  We thank DPS for its leadership and willingness to make corrections to better reflect student learning across the district.

DPS remedied issues with the early literacy information last year which greatly inflated school ratings at the elementary level. As a reminder, last year the district incorporated data from formative early literacy assessments like iStation that was not well aligned to later state literacy expectations as measured by Colorado Measures of Academic Standards (CMAS). Indeed this disconnect was reaffirmed by this year’s 3rd grade CMAS English Language Arts scores, where 38% of students met or exceeded expectations, flat compared to last year. This year, the district greatly reduced the weight of the early literacy data, and brought cut points more in line with expectations in later grades (the weight of this data, aligned with higher cut scores, will be increased next year). The first rule for any school rating system or SPF is that it be built with credible and understandable underlying data.

It’s a rare thing for large school districts to recognize their own mistakes and make change.  We are grateful. We also want to thank all of the community organizations, NAACP, African Leadership Group, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, Together Colorado, Urban League and others (and some additional leaders within the district) who called out the district on the problems with the 2017 SPF.  For more background on what happened in 2017 along with the overall challenges with the SPF see these A+ blogs about the recent SPF problems:
Denver’s Good But Is It That Good
The Mis/Non-measure of Schools, Time to Re-think the SPF?

Additionally, DPS kept its promise from 2 years ago and raised the bar for student performance in terms of the proportion of students who would need to meet expectations in order to earn a high rating on any “status” indicator; this year a majority of students within a school needed to earn a passing score on academic content assessments in order for the school to be green or meet expectations on that indicator. This is a step in the right direction; however, it is still not wholly aligned with Denver Plan Goals, such as 80% of 3rd graders will be on grade level in reading and writing in 2020. It should be noted that for 2018 only 1/4 of Denver’s low-income 3rd grade students are reading at grade level.

DPS’ commitment to closing academic gaps, as key to a quality school, is also important. Twenty schools’ ratings were lowered because groups of students were not close to meeting expectations or there were large gaps within schools between different groups of students. It is worth a deeper dive into how this plays out, and the relationship between the academic gaps indicator and work more broadly in the district to ensure an equitable education to every student in each school. Also, it is worth thinking through how this could be refined and pushed to help families understand how schools are serving students with similar experiences to their child.

So while we are pleased that the 2018 SPF has returned to using credible underlying achievement data, has raised the bar for academic achievement, and has focused on academic disparities between groups of students, the SPF is in need of radical redesign. It has been a powerful tool for the last decade in supporting the district’s improvement, but it is now time for a new version.  

The current SPF is too complicated, not fully transparent, and attempts to serve far too many purposes, which undermines the primary use for families and the community.  All of the recent changes have also had a dramatic impact on the credibility of the tool by teachers and school leaders.

SPF Design 2.0

With all of the change at DPS this year, including a new Superintendent and the problems with the current SPF, it is now time to return to some basic questions:

  1. Why DPS needs (or does not need) an SPF or school rating system?
  2. What is the purpose of an SPF?
  3. How should an SPF be used?
  4. What is the best design for an SPF?

Families and the larger community must know whether a school is supporting students to reach district and state expectations. We can not go back to the era when school quality was based largely on the perception of who the schools serve. A school performance framework or school rating, while imperfect and not the only indicator, is necessary to understand whether a school is supporting student learning.The SPF must be made more simple, easily understood and have all of the underlying data available to the public. The SPF must be credible and trusted. There is no perfect design for the SPF. There are a number of ways to include measures such as academic improvement over time as well as where schools are relative to supporting students to reach Colorado and DPS’ goals.   There are legitimate questions around whether there should be one rating or different ratings for different groups of students and/or different measures. How should growth over time be rated compared to whether students are meeting expectations?

There are no perfect SPF designs, but we believe we can get to some better answers through a process of exploring what the district and community expects of an SPF as well as reviewing what others have created throughout the country. There are many different designs of school rating systems throughout the country and the world.  We all need to explore what is possible in an effort to design what would work best in the context of Denver and the district’s goals for student learning.

While a well-designed SPF should continue to incorporate academic performance as a critical component of school quality, we know there are other indicators including qualitative information that should be included to make important decisions regarding interventions for low performing schools. The SPF should be used like blood pressure is by physicians, it is a significant indicator but not the only one for determining whether a person should go on medication or change their routines. The SPF has to be a trusted tool by the public and the district.  

Some have called for DPS to solely use the state SPF, the problem with the state’s SPF is that it has similar problems as DPS’ SPF except that the state achievement bar is far too low.  For instance, schools could be rated “green” but have fewer than half of the students reading at grade level. It is not a useful tool for understanding how most schools are performing since the state tool is only good for identifying the absolute worst schools in the state.  70% of schools in Colorado are rated good or above, yet most students are graduating from high school unprepared for college or a career. There is a fundamental disconnect between the state SPF and student achievement in Colorado. The state SPF is not useful in differentiating good from poor or great schools from one another. The state SPF is also in need of a version 2.0 but that will require legislative and state board action.  

SPF Oversight and Governance

The other critical design component of the SPF is where it sits and is overseen.  The district should and cannot be the only oversight on the design and administration of the SPF. It must be primarily a school quality tool for the community and should therefore include oversight outside of school district staff or in partnership with DPS.   

We suggest that the SPF, like the district mill oversight, the charter compact, and other projects that have strong community ties, have an oversight board made up of community leaders and district staff.  This board should oversee the design and administration of the SPF to ensure that the SPF remain a credible and useful community tool. The right governance structure will help make sure the SPF is not used by the district to promote or penalize certain schools and will help protect the SPF from being perceived as a political tool of DPS.  

Denver has done remarkable work developing SPF 1.0 and using it to drive improvement for the last decade. Given all that we now know about what is working in DPS, what families want in a school, what information families need to make a good school choice and what we have learned from the SPF in Denver and elsewhere, let’s make an investment in creating the Denver SPF 2.0 and bring together community and district leaders to build it. With new leadership coming on board in the district over the next few months, now is the time to make it happen.