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State releases new school ratings

By Nancy Mitchell

More than 80 percent of Colorado schools meet minimum expectations under the state’s new accountability system while the lowest 11 percent have five years to improve or face possible closure.

Denver Public Schools is home to 44 schools or programs – by far the most of any district – charged with creating “priority improvement” or “turnaround” plans to bolster student performance before time runs out.

State Board of Education members on Wednesday signed off on the first public release under the Education Accountability Act of 2009, the state law that is Colorado’s latest attempt to rate and improve its K-12 schools.

State board members unanimously assigned 2,080 schools or programs to one of four ratings that dictate the plans they must file with the Colorado Department of Education to demonstrate they’re on the path to continuous improvement.

The four plan types:

  • Performance – Assigned to 62 percent, or 1,292, of Colorado schools. This is the top rating and while a performance school must file an improvement plan, it will receive little state oversight.
  • Improvement – Assigned to 21 percent, or 431, of schools. The second-highest rating also means little state oversight. So a total of 83 percent of state schools – performance and improvement – can continue without extra state scrutiny.
  • Priority improvement – Assigned to 7 percent, or 147, of schools. This rating, along with the lowest rating of turnaround, requires a school file an improvement plan by Jan. 15. The plans will be reviewed by a state panel and must be approved by the state education commissioner.
  • Turnaround – Assigned to 4 percent, or 83, Colorado schools. The lowest rating. Both priority improvement and turnaround schools have five years – the clock starts ticking in fall 2011 – to improve.

State and district officials are still considering plan types for another 99 schools and final decisions are expected by Dec. 9, when Gov. Bill Ritter and other state leaders have scheduled a news conference to formally unveil the new system.

The remaining 28 schools of the 2,080 total have closed. Plans are assigned to schools by grade level so a K-12 school could have three separate plans for its elementary, middle and high school programs. The 2,080 figure, which is more than the total number of Colorado schools, represents the number of different plans assigned.

Districts also are being rated under the new system and those labels are set for release Nov. 15. There are six possible ratings for districts:

  • Accredited with distinction
  • Accredited
  • Accredited with improvement plan
  • Accredited with priority improvement plan
  • Accredited with turnaround plan
  • Unaccredited

The new accountability system replaces the School Accountability Reports. Like the SARs, it relies heavily on results of the Colorado Student Assessment Program or CSAP.

But it differs in placing greater weight on student academic growth, considering the extent of achievement gaps among students and factoring in graduation rates, dropout rates and ACT scores for high schools.

For example, elementary and middle schools are judged by:

  • Academic achievement – 25 possible points
  • Academic growth – 50 possible points
  • Academic growth gaps – 25 possible points

For high schools, the mix is slightly different:

  • Academic achievement – 15 points
  • Academic growth – 35 points
  • Academic growth gaps – 15 points
  • Postsecondary and workforce readiness – 35 points

Schools are labeled as Exceeds, Meets, Approaching or Does Not Meet on each performance indicator.

Of the 2,080 schools, only 56 elementary and middle schools met the Exceeds bar in each of the three performance areas. And just one high school – Ridgeview Classical Charter School in Fort Collins – met the Exceeds bar on all four high school indicators.

Click here to find your school in a spreadsheet showing all Colorado schools – drop down to Status of School Plan Assignments and find “CDE recommendations…”

Schools need not score particularly high on the performance indicators to be named “performance” schools. Earning 60 percent or above of the possible 100 points – a D in many classrooms – nets the top plan assignment.

To receive the lowest rating of “turnaround,” a school must achieve less than 33 percent of possible points.

That’s in contrast to the state’s first school ratings, released in 2001 by former Gov. Bill Owens. While more than 80 percent of Colorado schools on Wednesday received the top “performance” and “improvement” ratings, only a third of schools received the top ratings of “excellent” and “high” under the Owens’ plan.

Rich Wenning, the CDE’s assistant commissioner, said the new system “represents a floor, not a ceiling.”

“Our expectation is that districts will choose, if they wish, to exceed state expectations,” he said.

Some districts have indicated they will add a fifth rating at the top. Denver Public Schools, which has used a rating system similar to the state’s for the past three years, has a “distinguished” level for its top schools. This fall, 8 percent of Denver schools earned that top level in the district’s rating system.

The DPS accountability framework “is much more extensive than the state’s, which we think is appropriate,” Wenning said. “There’s room for local discretion in adding more performance measures.”

State and district officials continue to debate the ratings for some schools, including seven in DPS. Wenning said the initial state ratings, and any district requests for change, will be made public.

In 71 schools in eight districts so far, the state has deferred to a tougher district rating. In many cases, the districts wanted schools designated “alternative education campuses” to be required to submit an improvement plan.

DPS sought tougher ratings for 60 schools or programs. In fact, 15 of DPS’ 18 “turnaround” schools were not initially given that lowest rating by the state.

Some Denver schools receiving the state “turnaround” rating on Wednesday have languished for years. In 2001, 21 of the 30 schools named Colorado’s worst were in DPS. That list included Montbello High School, now the subject of a heated reform debate.

“We have great respect for the state tool but we clearly think the DPS framework is the most appropriate, comprehensive and rigorous framework for our schools,” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“Our actions are based on what’s best for kids and we simply don’t agree with those who would maintain we should sit around for five years until the state clock tolls before we should take the necessary action to improve schools.”

All schools’ plans for improvement will be posted online this spring, as required by law, but only those designated “turnaround” or “priority improvement” are subject to extra state scrutiny.

A state review panel, yet to be named, will review those school plans and evaluate the school’s leadership and staff before making recommendations to the education commissioner, who has final approval.

If a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” school does not improve after five years, the commissioner then asks the panel to review it and recommend one of a series of sanctions:

  • Management by a private or public entity other than the school district
  • Conversion to a charter school, if not a charter
  • Change in status to an innovation school
  • Closure of school or revocation of charter

The State Board of Education has final say on which sanctions would be imposed.

None of the school plans come with any additional state dollars, including “turnaround” and “priority improvement” schools, said Wenning.

“Our CDE staff will support those schools and districts in developing their plans to the best of our ability within the resources we have,” he said.

Wenning noted schools designated as “turnaround” under federal guidelines can receive federal funding. The state sought to create similar guidelines for its “turnaround” schools – the lowest-performing 5 percent – in an attempt to better align state and federal accountability systems.

Of the 83 schools receiving “turnaround” status so far, 12 are online schools, ten are charter schools and two are online charters – the elementary and middle school programs of Hope Online in Douglas County.

More than half, or 57 percent, of the lowest-rated schools are in 11 school districts. DPS, with 44 “turnaround” or “priority improvement” schools or programs, has the highest number.

That’s followed by Pueblo City, with 15 “turnaround” or “priority improvement” schools, Westminster with 12 and Colorado Springs with 10. Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, has nine of the lowest-rated schools.

More than half of all Colorado school districts have no schools rated “turnaround” or “priority improvement,” including Cherry Creek in the metro area.

Breakdown of ratings for state’s six largest districts, state:

Jefferson County

  • Performance – 72%
  • Improvement – 22%
  • Priority Improvement – 4%
  • Turnaround – .5%
  • Pending data review – 2%


  • Performance – 44%
  • Improvement – 25%
  • Priority Improvement – 13%
  • Turnaround – 9%
  • Pending data review – 4%
  • Schools closed – 5%

Douglas County

  • Performance – 89%
  • Improvement – 1%
  • Priority Improvement – 2%
  • Turnaround – 7%
  • Pending data review – 1%

Cherry Creek

  • Performance – 93%
  • Improvement – 7%
  • Priority Improvement, Turnaround – 0

Adams 12 Five Star

  • Performance – 60%
  • Improvement – 18%
  • Priority Improvement – 12%
  • Turnaround – 0
  • Pending data review – 5%
  • Schools closed – 5%


  • Performance – 49%
  • Improvement – 34%
  • Priority Improvement – 9%
  • Turnaround – 3%
  • Pending data review – 5%


  • Performance – 62%
  • Improvement – 21%
  • Priority Improvement – 7%
  • Turnaround – 4%
  • Pending data review – 5%
  • Schools closed – 1%

*State officials assigned plans to schools based on grade levels of elementary, middle and high school. That means a K-12 school may have received three plans for its elementary, middle and high school programs. Most schools received one plan.
**99 schools statewide have yet to receive plans as district and state officials review data. In addition, 28 schools receiving plan categories have closed.

To see a Google spreadsheet by district, click on Education News Colorado’s version of the story.

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