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Denver discards school rating system, will move forward with an information dashboard

Chinese teacher Fay Tsai teaches her fourth grade class at Denver Language School.
Chinese teacher Fay Tsai teaches a fourth-grade class at the Denver Language School in 2017.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Denver’s controversial school ratings system is gone, eradicated by the Denver school board Thursday night. It will be replaced with state-issued school ratings and eventually paired with a dashboard of information that families want to know about schools.

The seven-member board voted 6-1 Thursday to get rid of Denver Public Schools’ school performance framework, which had been criticized as costly and confusing.

The ratings were also controversial because of the key role they played in Denver’s approach to school improvement. Some low-rated schools were closed or replaced. Parents also used the ratings to help weigh their options in a district that encourages school choice.

Thursday’s vote takes another step away from the district’s long-held strategies. It falls in line with a previous board decision to take a softer tone with low-performing schools. The district will now use the state-issued ratings to determine which schools need intervention.

Board member Scott Baldermann cast the lone no vote on Thursday. He objected that the school rating changes don’t move the district far enough from its previous approach. In particular, he said he worries that an information dashboard could be misused.

“This is clearly intended to support school choice, which requires schools to use limited school funding on marketing in order to survive,” Baldermann said.

Three other board members also previously expressed concerns about the dashboard. Tay Anderson questioned whether the district had sought enough community opinion, apart from a 30-member committee that debated the issue for nine months.

Brad Laurvick was concerned that the district was making big changes before the board has solidified a new master plan. And Vice President Jennifer Bacon said that while she wanted parents to have data, she was wary of how the district had used it in the past.

The resolution that passed Thursday directs district staff to gather more feedback from families about what information they want to know about their children’s schools.

It also orders the district to define what a “quality school” looks like before launching the information dashboard. The 30-member committee had envisioned the dashboard could include information on everything from how many students were suspended at a certain school to how many took college-level courses and whether the buses ran on time.

While board member Barbara O’Brien called the resolution a “watered-down” version of the committee’s recommendations, Anderson said the compromise changed his vote.

Bacon, who helped shepherd the compromise, said, “When people don’t have access to information, it limits some of their abilities but it also keeps people in their place. I am for supporting families in having access to information about their schools.”

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