A School Year Like No Other

Originally published on May 1st, 2020 in the Greater Park Hill News

Let’s Take The Opportunity To Equal The Playing Field

By Park Hill Neighbors
For Equity In Education

To “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections, school districts nationwide made the momentous – and once, unimaginable – decision to cancel in-person student instruction. On March 12, Denver Public Schools decided to extend spring break until April 7. Administrators subsequently announced that in-school instruction would not resume for the remainder of the academic year.

A host of consequences followed, including cancelled or postponed school celebrations and gatherings like graduation, prom, and student performances. DPS and other districts are also confronted with the challenge of bringing remote technology-based learning to thousands of students, including those facing poverty and who lack adequate technological resources.

In addition, on March 17, Colorado cancelled state standardized tests, which are administered annually each spring. These tests assess student proficiency and growth on math, English language arts, and science, and with that data, are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Colorado will pause its school and district accountability system and schools will keep last year’s ratings.

This is a major development for DPS, as standardized testing is the cornerstone of its School Performance Framework (SPF), and ultimately, the primary basis for each school’s SPF color rating – ranging from red, the lowest, to blue, the highest. These ratings heavily influence student enrollment across schools in the district as parents often rely on SPF when selecting a school for their students via school choice.

However, in a strange twist of fate, Colorado’s pause of assessments comes at the same time that DPS is in the process of reimagining the SPF in response to widespread criticism of it.

Reimagined or just replaced?

In 2019, DPS convened a task force to “reimagine” how it defines school “quality” in response to the criticism. (For more, see Calls are mounting to change Denver’s school rating system. Here’s how it works now, published by Chalkbeat on April 3, 2019.)

One main complaint is that the SPF emphasizes standardized test scores over all other factors, including school climate and the experiences that children are actually having in a school.

Indeed, as we have written in previous issues, standardized tests tell more about the socioeconomic status of the households from which a school’s students come than what a school actually contributes to student learning, even when accounting for growth measurements. The SPF is also judged by many as too complicated to understand, constantly changing in its measurement metrics, and inaccurate because of the time lag between data collection and ratings dissemination.

Many parents do not know that a school’s rating in any particular year is based on an average of data from the previous two years and does not incorporate any current or projected data.

Since August 2019, the task force has met monthly and sought community input on several occasions to address these issues. But, as to the concern about testing, it seems the committee will not get all that imaginative. In January, it voted in favor of replacing the SPF with the state’s school rating system as an academic baseline for evaluating DPS schools.

Yet the state’s system is also heavily dependent on annual standardized testing. The committee has yet to issue a final recommendation for SPF’s replacement. Once it does so, it will be subject to school board approval.

The committee’s January vote predated the outbreak of the coronavirus. At that time, no one could foresee that the district’s, and state’s, most heavily relied upon metric for assessing school quality would virtually disappear. Yet, here we are.

The time is ripe

With test scores now off the table, DPS should use this highly unusual school year, and next, to pilot a version of SPF that allows schools to share their own amazing qualities with families – and that allows parents to make school choice decisions based on that information.

Deemphasizing test scores can also place schools on a more fair and equitable playing field, given the vast socioeconomic differences between school populations, which test scores reflect. (See our column from the November 2019 Greater Park Hill News, Don’t Judge a School By Its Test Scores, at greaterparkhill.org.)

Qualities that many families seek in a school have almost nothing to do with how the SPF currently measures quality. And many schools that are not highly-rated offer such characteristics. Among them are authentic, caring relationships among teachers, school leaders, parents and students; climates of belonging and community; curriculum that is relevant to students’ life experiences; and genuine parent engagement and empowerment.

These qualities are much more challenging to quantify and convey than computerized test results, but the challenge presented by the absence of standardized testing this year brings an opportunity for DPS to do something different and, perhaps, offer a more meaningful set of metrics for parents to use when evaluating a school.

DPS should not squander this opportunity by forcing schools to use this academic years’ ratings next year. To do so will only perpetuate the effects of SPF’s flaws yet another year, and convey information that is even more outdated than that on which parents have already had to rely. If this happens, parents relying on a school’s 2019-2020 SPF rating during school choice in 2021, to enroll a child in school for the fall of 2021, will actually be relying on test scores from as far back as 2017 and 2018.

The better option is a new one. Into the void left by missing test scores, what if, collectively, we decided what was actually important in making a choice about where to send our kids to school, and fought to gather and share that information?

Maybe when federally mandated testing returns, we would be able to supplement test scores with new, more relevant and meaningful metrics about school quality, ensuring a more equitable choice process in the future. If you’d like to be part of that conversation, email us at info@phnee.org.

Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education (PHNEE.org) is an organization of local advocates working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in all schools in Greater Park Hill.