Fewer Colorado schools earned top ratings this year — and 31% more earned one of the state’s two lowest ratings — after three years of pandemic-interrupted schooling, according to preliminary ratings released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Education.
Of Colorado’s more than 1,870 schools, 175 earned one of the two lowest ratings, up from 134 schools that had one of the two lowest ratings last year.
Thirteen school districts also earned one of the two lowest ratings, up from four last year. The 13 districts include three in the metro area: Mapleton, Englewood, and Sheridan.
Low-rated schools and districts qualify for additional financial assistance and advice from state education officials. But repeated low ratings put schools and districts at risk of state intervention if their student test scores don’t improve.
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release that the ratings, known officially as the School Performance Framework reports, mirror the state literacy and math test scores on which they are largely based. Test scores fell during the pandemic.
“The frameworks demonstrate the same thing we saw with our assessment results — that we still have work to do to rebuild following the pandemic,” Anthes said.
What state officials call the accountability clock — a timeline for struggling schools and districts to show improvement or face intervention — has been on hold since state testing was suspended in 2020.
This school year is a transition year, with schools receiving ratings that might serve as a warning but won’t be used to add schools to the clock or move schools further along. Schools that have been on the clock can use a good rating to make a case for getting off, but schools with poor ratings will have another year to improve before facing consequences.
Lawmakers increased school transformation grant funding 50% this year to a total of $6 million and will allow more schools to apply for that funding. Schools also have access to federal COVID relief money they can use for tutoring and other help for students.
About 17% of schools and 39% of school districts had so little testing data the state did not assign a rating. That’s higher than in years past.
How schools under state orders fared
The State Board of Education can still use this year’s ratings to order new interventions in schools and districts already under improvement orders from the State Board of Education. These schools and districts have had at least five years of low ratings.
Twelve schools and one district, Adams 14 in Commerce City, are already under state orders. The 12 schools include three in Aurora, three in Pueblo, two in Adams 14, two in Denver, one in Monte Vista, and one in Colorado Springs.
The Adams 14 district, which has tested the limits of the state’s accountability system, has had low ratings since 2010, and this year saw a further drop in its rating. Central Elementary, which has its own separate state improvement plan, dropped another level to the lowest this year.
In total, five of the district’s 11 schools earned one of the two lowest ratings. But two Adams 14 schools that previously had low ratings earned an improved rating this year: Rose Hill Elementary and Lestor Arnold, the district’s alternative high school.
Under a new superintendent, district and union leaders last year criticized the state’s accountability system as inequitable. Students in the district face so many challenges outside the classroom, leaders say, that learning takes more time. Teachers have to address hunger, safety, and trauma first.
Additionally, more than half of Adams 14 students are learning English as a second language, one of the highest percentages in the state. Past administrations faced federal investigations for discriminating against them.
More recently, leaders have tried to correct that record, including by restoring some bilingual education and describing the students as linguistically gifted. However, those students were also the most likely to suffer under disruptions during COVID shutdowns when schools didn’t offer the normal amount of English language development classes and had to change how they offered support for students.
In Aurora, Aurora Central High School earned a lower rating this year than in the past. The district recently created an arts magnet program on the same campus that will include a path at Aurora Central for students studying the arts.
The two other Aurora schools under state orders, Gateway High School and North Middle School, stayed the same, each earning one of the two lowest ratings once again. So did Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, which is also under state orders.
Only three of the 12 schools with state orders saw their ratings improve: Manual High School in Denver, and Central High and Minnequa Elementary schools in the Pueblo City 60 district. Bill Metz Elementary School in the Monte Vista district earned a high rating for the second year in a row, which means it could request to be removed from the clock.
How ratings are calculated
Each public school in Colorado receives an annual state rating. Student growth, or how much progress students make year over year on state tests compared with peers with previously similar scores, counts more toward the ratings than does how many students scored at grade level. For high schools, data such as graduation and dropout rates also factor into the ratings.
Colorado last issued ratings in 2019 that were based on state math and literacy tests from that spring. State tests were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and limited in 2021. This past spring was the first time since 2019 that students in grades three through 11 took the full battery of tests, known as the Colorado Measures of Academic Success or CMAS.
The 2021 state ratings were based on 2019 state test scores, though schools and districts could request that the state raise their ratings based on other data.
Colorado issues each public school one of four ratings, ranging from performance plan, the highest, followed by improvement plan, priority improvement plan, and turnaround plan, the lowest. School districts receive similar ratings, though the highest performing districts can earn a rating of distinction plan.
Schools and districts rated priority improvement or turnaround are put on a state watchlist and have five years to show improvement.
This year, 54% of Colorado schools earned the highest rating, down from 69% in 2019. Another 17% of schools have the second-highest rating this year, down from 21%.
The percentage of schools with one of the two lowest ratings increased to 9% from 7%.
More than half of schools maintained the same rating from 2021 final ratings to this year’s preliminary ratings. Overall, about 15% of schools’ ratings decreased, while about 10% increased.
Colorado’s school accountability system is currently undergoing a wide-ranging performance audit ordered by lawmakers. The audit is meant to ask whether the system improves student outcomes, hurts certain student groups, or influences teaching practices in negative ways, among other questions. Results are expected in November.
Erica Meltzer and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting. Kae Petrin contributed data analysis.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.