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School group critical of “School Grades”

The Colorado Association of School Executives has sent its membership of roughly 2,000 school and district leaders a two-page letter critical of a new system for ranking schools.

The CASE letter to principals, assistant principals and superintendents went out late last week, about six weeks after the debut of ColoradoSchoolGrades.com. The website, funded by a coalition of foundations and advocacy groups, grades the state’s public schools from A to F.

It was developed by Colorado Succeeds with help from the Center for Education Policy Analysis at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs. Tim Taylor, who heads Colorado Succeeds, said it’s an attempt to make it easy for parents and others to see how schools are performing.

But CASE gives the site less than a passing grade.

In his letter, CASE executive director Bruce Caughey wrote, “Schools were graded on a curve that arbitrarily determined that 10 percent would receive A’s no matter how well the schools performed.

“In addition, they decided that 5 percent of schools must receive F’s regardless of how well they did. And their process will always make that happen even if all schools perform well.”

Caughey added the site’s approach “shifts attention toward a single measure, away from the broader, and much more accepted, presentation of information” offered by the state. And he directs CASE members to encourage parents to instead use the Colorado Department of Education’s SchoolView.org webpage.

The state system divides schools into four broad categories of Performance, Improvement, Priority Improvement and Turnaround. It places 60 percent of schools in the top Performance category.

Taylor, who described parts of the letter as “a little misguided,” said the website already has received 200,000 visitors.

“We would have appreciated an opportunity to comment and even correct,” he said.

Taylor takes issue with the CASE critique about slicing the state’s schools into narrower bands for ranking. Only 10 percent of the schools – the 186 that earn 90 percent of the points possible – earn an A rating. And only 38 schools, those with 98 percent or above, receive an A+.

“We did that because we wanted to recognize the top performers, whereas the state wants to recognize the top 60 percent,” said Taylor.

Giving 60 percent of schools the top rating “means that a school in the 42nd percentile and a school in the 98th percentile are called the same thing,” he pointed out.

“That seems outrageous to us,” Taylor said. “Are they saying it’s better that we recognize the top 60 percent as the ‘top performers’?”

Caughey said last week’s letter results from principals turning to CASE for more information about the school grades website.

“We had gotten a request from our board of our principals’ group saying, ‘Could you provide some context and information about School Grades? Because we didn’t receive anything, and we are the ones getting the questions about this.’

“There was no communication with school principals about what this was intended to do,” Caughey added.

Taylor provided Education News Colorado with an email about the new ranking system sent to CASE and others on Nov. 16, about four weeks before the site launched.

“There was no ‘gotcha’ here,” he said. “There was advance notice we were doing this, and we explained our rationale for doing it.”

Both SchoolView.org and ColoradoSchoolGrades.com are just the latest in a long line of public and private efforts to help parents and others navigate the state’s 1,500-plus schools. Prior to SchoolView, former Gov. Bill Owens initiated letter grades for schools from E to U, or excellent to unsatisfactory, and the state sent out annual School Accountability Reports or SARs.

“Most parents aren’t really interested in overall think-tank speak.”
— Andrea Merida, DPS boardCaughey said the state’s most recent initiative, SchoolView.org, is “comprehensive” with “lots of different points of information.” But he conceded, “If you’re looking for a single label, it’s not quite as easy to find a single label. You have to look in there, and look at more than one indicator. That’s its beauty and also its drawback.”

He said it would have been more helpful for Colorado Succeeds and its partners “to focus efforts on improving that system, than on creating an alternative system.”

Denver school board member Andrea Merida, who has criticized the school grades website for failing to properly account for schools with more English language learners, expressed a slight preference for the state’s webpage.

But she believes parents generally place lower emphasis on statistical rankings and more on a school’s commitment to “the whole child approach” and its ability to prepare children for college.

“Most parents aren’t really interested in overall think-tank speak,” said Merida. “They want to know how the school is going to prepare the child according to their own values and to what they think is important.”

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