Two-dozen Denver schools this year earned the lowest possible score on a new school district measure meant to gauge how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students.
The schools run the gamut from long-standing traditional schools to newer charter schools, from schools that serve a homogenous student population to those that are more integrated, and from highly rated schools to some of Denver Public Schools’ most struggling.
The new measure — called the equity indicator — is part of DPS’s color-coded school rating system. It takes into account the test scores and graduation rates of students of color, low-income students, English language learners and special education students.
The district added it to shine an expository light on educational disparities, officials said.
“Our commitment is to make sure all of our kids succeed,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a press conference last month when the scores were released. “It’s fundamentally a civil rights mission we have for the success of our kids.”
Schools this year got an equity rating along the same scale used for overall ratings: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange or red (the lowest). (See individual school ratings in our database below.) Since it was new, the equity rating didn’t count toward the overall rating.
But next year, schools will have to score green or above on equity to be green or blue overall, Boasberg said. The district uses school ratings to help make several important decisions, including whether to close schools that are persistently low-performing.
Of the 82 DPS schools that were blue or green overall this year, 33 were below green on equity.
Most of those 33 schools were yellow on equity, just one color rating below where they’d need to be. But three schools that were green overall were red on equity: Park Hill Elementary, Denver Discovery School and Denver Montessori Junior High.
Katy Myers, principal of Denver Montessori, said the school is taking the rating seriously.
“The reason why people work here is to create an authentic Montessori adolescent program that reaches all students,” she said. “For DPS to help us know the students we’re reaching and the students we’re not reaching is great information for us.”
Opened four years ago, the school serves as the secondary school for Denver’s four Montessori elementaries. Last year, 70 percent of students were kids of color, 44 percent were low-income, 19 percent were English language learners and 13 percent were special education students.
In the wake of the rating, Myers said the school is working on improving “the basics: pre-teaching, re-teaching and checks for understanding. If there’s more teaching that needs to happen, that’s easy for us to do within our schedule.”
Ken Burdette, principal at Park Hill Elementary, said that while he agrees DPS should focus on equity, he’s worried his school’s red rating doesn’t paint an accurate picture. For example, he said, although white students are making faster academic progress than students of color at Park Hill, both groups are outpacing district averages on state tests.
“All students are learning,” Burdette said. “They’re not all learning at the same rate.”
Last year, 37 percent of Park Hill students were kids of color, 24 percent were low-income, 5 percent were English language learners and 10 percent were special education students.
Districtwide, students with more privilege are making faster progress on state tests than those from disadvantaged backgrounds — which has widened so-called achievement gaps. Boasberg said the district’s goal “is that everyone gains.”
“We want to be intentional about being clear where we are making progress and where we’re not making the progress we need to,” he said, “and provide schools with the support they need to accelerate across the community our work in closing the gaps.”
Successes and challenges
Demographics play a role in what a school’s equity rating means.
Some of the 24 schools that were red on equity serve a fairly homogenous student population. (That number does not include alternative or early education schools.) West Leadership Academy, one of several smaller high schools located in the former West High, is an example. Last year, 97 percent of students were low-income, 98 percent were students of color and 79 percent were English language learners.
In cases like that, Boasberg said, the school may not have enough affluent, white, native English speakers to make comparisons. Thus the equity rating will be less a measure of a school’s achievement gaps and more a measure of students’ raw test scores and growth.
In schools with more integrated student populations, the equity rating takes those gaps into account. In the past, a school where affluent students were doing well but low-income students were not might still get a good overall rating because the high scores of the affluent students would mask the lower scores of the students living in poverty, Boasberg said.
Requiring schools to be at least green on equity in order to be blue or green overall will make it impossible to hide those disparities any longer, he said.
The Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a four-year-old elementary charter school located in the district’s headquarters, is more integrated than many DPS schools. Last year, 30 percent of students were low-income, 38 percent were students of color, 4 percent were English language learners and 8 percent were special education students.
While the school earned a yellow rating overall this year, it was red on equity.
Executive Director Scott Mengel said his staff was “totally disappointed” by the rating. But even before it came out, he said the school was working to address challenges such as a weakness in math by creating a team of specialists to work with small groups of students to boost performance. Teachers have also begun looking more closely at how certain groups of students — including low-income kids and students of color — are progressing, he said.
At the same time, Mengel is taking pride in another set of data: one that shows students report feeling engaged, supported and safe. Those are important factors for an expeditionary learning school, he said, which aims to grow students’ character alongside their academics.
“None of those are like an excuse in any way,” Mengel said. “But we believe those things are foundational to the long-term academic success kids will enjoy.”
Some of the district’s more integrated schools got high equity ratings, including Southmoor Elementary, High Tech Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and East High.
Thomas Jefferson High, which was green overall and green on equity, is among the most integrated: 52 percent of students last year were low-income, 61 percent were students of color, 25 percent were English language learners and 16 percent were special education students.
Principal Mike Christoff said the school has focused on mainstreaming special education students in regular classes. It also used grant money to increase the number of students enrolled in rigorous Advanced Placement classes — and separately got rid of tracking for freshman English classes so that all ninth-grade students take honors English.
In addition, Christoff said his staff makes sure every one of its English language learners is enrolled in an English language development course. The school also pays teachers to tutor after school four days a week and releases kids 40 minutes early on Wednesdays so they can get extra help without worrying about missing sports practice or the bus.
“We really try to push a family atmosphere, a family mentality and take care of each other, know each other and know about the lives of our kids,” Christoff said.
The meaning of equity
Most of the factors that go into the equity rating (see box) are not new. According to Boasberg, they’ve been part of a school’s overall rating since the district introduced its color-coded system a decade ago.
What’s new is that the district is pulling them out into their own separate category, he said. Even so, Boasberg emphasized that each factor will only count once toward a school’s overall rating.
Many other states and school districts factor achievement gaps and similar measures into school ratings, experts said. While they applauded Denver’s effort to highlight inequities, some criticized the district’s decision focus on test scores and graduation rates.
Including other factors — such as whether schools disproportionately suspend students of color, translate information for families into multiple languages or make college-level courses available to all students — would give a more accurate picture of equity, they said.
“Test scores have become a reality in our society,” said Philip Bernhardt, the department chair of secondary/K-12 education at Denver’s Metropolitan State University and a DPS parent. “But are there not five or six other nuanced ways we could think about equity?”
Boasberg said the district chose the factors it did to allow for fair comparisons across all types of schools. But that’s not to say other factors aren’t important, too, he said.
“There are dozens of different measures that are important,” Boasberg said. “But at the same time, our (rating system) is already quite comprehensive. … How many different data inputs do you put in (before) it becomes so complicated that it becomes difficult to comprehend?”