The leaders of six community groups issued a joint letter Thursday calling on the Denver school board to immediately correct what they called misleading and inflated elementary school ratings.
“Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable,” says the letter, which noted that Denver Public Schools families will soon begin making choices about where to send their children to school next year.
Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district plans to address the issue the group is raising but would not change this year’s School Performance Framework ratings, which were released in October.
The letter was signed by leaders from groups that advocate for people of color: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP Denver Branch, the African Leadership Group, Together Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the nation’s first African-American fraternity.
“The methods used to calculate school scores in the 2017 SPF have, as acknowledged in meetings between the superintendent and the undersigned, resulted in inflated performance rankings,” the letter says. “Specifically, the district is significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”
The School Performance Framework awards schools points based on various metrics. The points put them in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red. A record number of schools earned blue and green ratings this year.
The district increased the number of points elementary schools could earn this year if their students in kindergarten through third grade did well on state-required early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation.
The increase came at the same time schools across Denver saw big jumps in the number of students scoring at grade-level on iStation and similar tests. While the district celebrated those gains and credited an increased focus on early literacy, some community leaders and advocates questioned whether the scores paint an accurate picture of student achievement.
At some schools, there was a big gap between the percentage of third-graders reading at grade-level as measured by the early literacy tests and the percentage of third-graders reading and writing at grade-level according to the more rigorous PARCC tests. The state and the district consider the PARCC tests the gold standard measure of what students should know.
For example, 73 percent of third-graders at Castro Elementary in southwest Denver scored on grade-level on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.
Boasberg has acknowledged the misalignment. To address it, the district announced this fall that it plans to raise the early literacy test cut points starting in 2019 for the purposes of the School Performance Framework, which means it will be harder for schools to earn points. The delay in raising the cut points is to give schools time to get used to them, Boasberg said.
But the letter authors don’t want to wait. They’re asking the district to issue a “correction of the early literacy measure” before its school choice window opens in February.
“We call on the Denver Public Schools Board and Superintendent to re-issue corrected 2017 school performance results for all affected schools to ensure parents have honest information to choose the schools that are best for their students,” the letter says.
But Boasberg said changing the ratings now 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,” he said.
In an interview, Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, said, “This is not an attempt to come after the district. The Urban League has had a longstanding partnership with DPS. We work together on a lot of issues that really impact our community.
“But when our organizations see things that may not be in the full best interest of our communities,” Bradley said, “we have a real responsibility to talk about it and work with the district to rectify it.”
The concern about early literacy scores was one of several expressed by advocates and educators related to this year’s school ratings. Others complained the district’s new “academic gaps indicator” unfairly penalized schools that serve a diverse population.
Below, read the letter from the six groups and a letter from Boasberg in response.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.