Much More Than a Color

Originally published in Greater Park Hill News – Dec 31st, 2018

By Andrew Lefkowits

‘Tis the Season! No, not the season of agonizing over whether or not you chose the exact right gift for everyone on your list. It’s the Season of School Choice – an even more stressful time for Denver Public Schools parents trying to choose the exact right school for their children.

But never fear! DPS has made it easy for you by assigning a color to every school based on a ranking system known as the School Performance Framework (SPF). Schools are labeled Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, or Red and the district would have you believe that a Blue or Green school is “good” and a Yellow, Orange, or Red school is “bad.”

While this handy system provides the illusion of simplifying your choice process, a school is so much more than a color. There are thousands of ways that schools influence a child as a learner and as a human being. The SPF assumes that the things you can measure are the only things that are important, and, even within the limited scope of things SPF measures, it assumes all families prioritize those things the same way.

Devil in the details

SPF scores are based on three factors: Growth (how much progress a student has made on state tests); Status (how close to grade level a student is); and Engagement (results of parent and student satisfaction surveys). Growth and Status make up about 90 percent of the SPF score, with growth counting twice as much as status.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable, albeit simplistic, way to calculate the value of a school. But, as usual, the devil is in the details.

For example, standardized test scores are strongly correlated with socio-economic status, which raises questions about the validity of the tests. In fact, in 2018 only 26 schools in DPS (out of 207) with greater than 90 percent FRL students (those who qualify to receive free or

reduced priced lunch based on their parent’s income) were Green. None were Blue. And, only nine schools with under 50 percent FRL students had SPF scores in the Yellow, Orange, or Red range.

Using test scores to measure a whole school is telling you more about the school’s demographics than about how any individual child, including yours, may perform in that school.

In addition, the SPF is a lagging, not a leading, indicator of performance. The rating in any particular year is based on an average of data from the previous two years. It does not incorporate any current or projected data. A school’s 2018 SPF rating, used by parents looking to enroll a child in 2019, is based on scores from 2016 and 2017.

Using an average helps “smooth” out the data and for a school with low teacher turnover and a consistent student population, this makes some sense. But if, like many DPS schools, enrollment, leadership, or programming has recently changed, the current SPF may be a poor indicator of what you can expect in the following year. Given a principal turnover rate of nearly 20 percent in DPS, it is reasonable to expect that the current state of many schools is not accurately reflected in the very slow SPF.

Ideas to consider

So, if not SPF, then what? Here are three ideas Park Hill families should consider:

First, tour the schools in our neighborhood. Entering the building, meeting the principal and staff, watching classrooms in action, will give you more timely information and a sense of the elements not measured by SPF.

Second, talk to parents whose children are enrolled. Parents can offer a more authentic assessment of what the school community is like and tell you if their child is thriving.

Finally, and perhaps most important, consider the impact of your choice on the neighborhood as a whole. Parents have many valid reasons for choosing one school over another. But choosing a school outside of Park Hill is not without consequences to the community. Annual school budgets are based on student enrollment. Fewer students means fewer resources, making it harder for schools to equitably serve all kids.

Last year, 688 elementary school kids who live in Park Hill chose a non-Park Hill DPS school. Those kids took roughly $2.8 million of education funding with them.

Choosing to leave the neighborhood without looking beyond the SPF and fully exploring the options does a disservice to Park Hill’s long history of support for our schools. Better schools serve us all. Make your choice count.