These 30 people will help reimagine Denver’s controversial school rating system

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A classroom inside South High School, April 13, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; south high school; education; school; classroom; denverite; kevinjbeaty;

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat  

Concerns with how Denver rates its schools emerged as one of the hottest topics during last year's search for a superintendent. Now that a new leader is in place, the state's largest district is reimagining its controversial color-coded school rating system.

A task force of 30 parents, teachers, principals, and community members (see the roster below) will spend the next eight months coming up with recommendations for how to determine a "quality" school. The ratings are important: Denver Public Schools uses them to flag schools that are struggling and need more oversight, while many parents use them to figure out where to send their children in a district that encourages school choice.

The district plans to roll out the new ratings on a hold-harmless basis next fall, and begin using them for school accountability decisions in the fall of 2021.

The current rating system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, relies heavily on state test scores -- which is one thing many people don't like. Other concerns include that the rating formula is too complicated, and that yearly tweaks make "quality" a moving target. Some people claim the ratings make schools look better than they are. Others claim the opposite.

The questions the task force is likely to grapple with include: Should the ratings more heavily weight the number of students at a school who can read and do math at grade level? Or should they more heavily weight how much academic progress students make from year to year?

What factors other than test scores should the ratings take into account? And how should the ratings measure whether a school is serving all students equitably?

"It's become really clear over the last several years that our stakeholders -- whether those are school leaders or teachers or families -- really believe our SPF is too complicated and may not be measuring, in all cases, the right things," said Jennifer Holladay, who oversees school accountability for the district and is helping to facilitate the task force meetings.

The purpose of the task force, Holladay said, "is to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to really think about the values we hold as a district, and how we want to measure those things and hold schools and the district accountable for the outcomes."

Holladay said that while federal law requires test scores be part of any school rating system, "there are opportunities here to do things in a fundamentally different way." One of the only ground rules is that the new rating system has to be grounded in equity, she said.

In her first year, Superintendent Susana Cordova has focused on improving education for the black and Latino students who make up the majority of Denver's nearly 93,000 students.

The Colorado Department of Education has its own school rating system that is used by most districts in the state. Denver's rating system predates the state's and takes more factors into account. The Denver teachers union has called on the district to discontinue its system and use the state's instead, an idea Holladay said the task force may discuss.

More than 160 people applied to be on the task force, and 30 were chosen. The selection committee considered where in the city the applicants lived, their racial and ethnic identity, and whether they were affiliated with district-run or charter schools, among other factors, to ensure membership was diverse, according to the task force webpage.

Eight of the task force members are parents or family members, eight are teachers, eight are school leaders, two are administrators, and four are community members. Holladay said they hold a variety of opinions on topics ranging from standardized testing to the disproportionality of student discipline, both of which will likely factor into the conversation.

"This is going to be messy and emotionally charged," Holladay said. "It's our hope that the group can build relationships, that we can all stay in this together and get it done so we can have a new era in Denver that reflects the values we hold dear as a community."

Below is a list of task force members, as well as links to our prior coverage of Denver's ratings.

The task force members include:

Jesús Rodríguez, instructional superintendent for Denver Public Schools
Ashley Piche, chief of staff for DSST charter schools
Scott Wolf, principal at district-run North High School
Amy Bringedahl, principal at district-run Northfield High School
Nivan Khosravi, principal at district-run Maxwell Elementary School
Cesar Rivera, principal at district-run Samuels Elementary School
David Singer, executive director of University Prep charter schools
Marcia Fulton, executive director of Compass Academy charter school
John Stanley, data manager at Girls Athletic Leadership Schools charter schools
Elisha Roberts, principal at STRIVE Prep RISE charter school
Jessica Schneider, teacher in far northeast Denver
Gerardo A. Muñoz, teacher in near northeast Denver
Katie Shively, teacher in northwest Denver
Leslie Stahl, teacher in southwest Denver
Priscilla Shaw Rahn, teacher in southeast Denver
Madeline Velez, specialized service provider in central Denver
Esther Mathoka, teacher at-large
Janelle Constance, teacher at-large
Monica Bellaire, parent/family member from far northeast Denver
Kelly Molinet, parent/family member from near northeast Denver
Paulina Rodriguez Canizares, parent/family member from northwest Denver
Leilani Siens, parent/family member from southwest Denver
Mark Schaffer, parent/family member from southeast Denver
Benita Bazemore-Cook, parent/family member from central Denver
Jane Shirley, parent/family member at-large
Roberto Montoya, parent/family member at-large
Felipe Vieyra, organizer with Leadership for Educational Equity
Lisa Escárcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives
Nicholas Martinez, co-executive director of Transform Education Now
Shirley Richard, leader with advocacy group Together Colorado

Our prior coverage of Denver's ratings includes:

Calls are mounting to change Denver's school rating system. Here's how it works now.
Fewer Denver schools earn top ratings as the district raises the bar for quality
After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools
Why Denver's school rating system is coming under fire on multiple fronts

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

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