DPS’s School Performance Framework, magnified

With the DPS Board election now over, it’s back to the grind. Much of the current discussion around DPS — including the bulk of a recent A+ meeting — is focused on the School Performance Framework (SPF). Now I like the SPF, I think it is rigorous and highly useful for comparing individual schools, and I applaud the district’s honest and transparent view.  However, as a snapshot of the District overall, the data is not presented particularly well — which makes sense, since that was not its original purpose.

But the SPF is increasingly used to evaluate the District as a whole.  The recent A+ meeting got me thinking about what the SPF information would look like if viewed with a wider lens and in a simpler presentation. Turns out it is quite a magnified perspective.

The SPF ranks individual schools on a variety of criteria, and places each school into one of four categories.  In ascending order of quality, these four categories are: On Probation, On Watch, Meets Expectations, and Distinguished. Looking at summary data for these categories, and it becomes clear that there are three significant areas where the SPF somewhat distorts the broader view due to its focus on individual schools.  The data is illuminating on all three:

1. Size matters. The SPF ratings do not factor the size of student enrollment in a school.  In a broader view, a good school of 500 students should be roughly equivalent to two bad schools with 250 students each.  However far more of the worst DPS schools have large student bodies. In the lowest category of “On Probation” there are 10 schools (of the 20 possible) with more than 500 students.  In contrast, in the highest category of “Distinguished,” just one school (of the 9 possible) have more than 500 students. So 50% of DPS’s worst schools have over 500 students, while less than 10% of its best schools have over 500 students.

2. Income matters. The SPF ratings do not factor the percentage of free and reduced lunch (FRL) students in a when ranking individual* schools. Presumably, if we are trying to close the achievement gap, these are the students we want at our best schools (or at the very minimum we want them there in equal proportions).  Yet FRL students attend Denver’s worst schools in far greater proportions than their more affluent peers. About 2 of every 3 DPS students are FRL, yet in a stunning reversal only 1 of every 3 students in a Distinguished school is FRL.  Our best schools literally take the district’s base demographics and flip them upside down.

3. Grade matters. The SPF does not take into account the differences between schools serving different grades. Ideally, as students move through the education system they would get better options – having proficient 12th graders is more important than having proficient 1st graders.  But the data shows that the better schools overwhelmingly serve the elementary grades.  In fact, the closer a student is towards graduation, the more likely they will attend a bad school. With some basic assumptions, the data shows that a student is over 3 times more likely to attend a Distinguished school in grades K-5 as they are in grades 9-12.

Lastly, all three of these factors are badly exacerbated when combined. Consider the near-deadly combination of large schools, a high percentage of low-income students, and grades 9-12.  Just For example, within DPS there are** two large schools, both with On Probation status, that house over 1,850 students in grades 9-12.  Of these, about 1,42o are FRL students – remember, this is in just two schools among the 20 ranked lowest.  In contrast, how many total FRL students in grades 9-12 attend a Distinquished school?  Roughly 180 – all of whom are at DSST (a charter school).  How many FRL students are there in grades 9-12 at traditional (DPS operated) Distinguished schools?  Zero. Well, how many students overallin grades 9-12 attend a traditional Distinguished school?  Um, Zero.  That’s not a misprint: there is just one Distinguished school serving grades 9-12, and it is not operated by DPS. If you are an FRL student, in a large school, in grades 9-12, you are likely in the vortex of public education’s perfect storm.

If you’ve gotten past those three screaming ghosts of DPS present, here is the SPF data with a view across the entire District.  Again, the SPF ranks each school in ascending order of quality across four categories On Probation, On Watch, Meets Expectations, andDistinguished. Below is a graph which shows how many total students — both FRL and Non FRL — are in each school category:

Screen shot 2009-10-27 at 11.41.45 PM

Remember that the SPF is based around a median score, so that most schools will clump in the middle.  Two points in this graph are striking.  First is how many kids go to the district’s worst schools (10,477) versus attend the District’s best schools (3,577) — a ratio of almost 3 to 1.  Again, some of the District’s worst schools are among its largest, and if we are serious about improving outcomes, we need to address these first.  Being a small school does not guarantee quality (see Manual’s failed small schools experiment), but particularly in the older grades, it’s harder and harder to find large schools with significant FRL populations that are of high quality.

The second point is far worse: look at what happens to our poorest students – those that qualify for FRL status. Overall, FRL students are about 67% of the overall district.  But they make up a far greater percentage of students in the worst schools.  Here’s another look at the same data showing the percentage of students by income:

Screen shot 2009-10-28 at 12.01.11 AM

Denver’s worst public schools (those with On Probation status) have 83% FRL populations; its best public schools (with Distinguished status) have just 25% FRL populations. The better the school category, the smaller the percentage of FRL students who attend. Ouch.

There are about 50,000 FRL students in Denver: less then 2% go to a Distinguished school, while 17% of attend a school On Probation.  There are about 23,400 Non-FRL students in Denver; 11% go to a Distinguished school, and 7% to a school On Probation. As we’ll see in a minute, this division is as true in kindergarten as it is in high school.  If that does not make you think the deck is stacked against low-income kids, I don’t know what will.

What is also astounding, and what is not generally apparent from a school-based version of the SPF, is how the proportions change as kids move through the public school system. Now this is harder to ascertain from the SPF data: While schools are sorted by grades served, they do not list the distribution of kids across those grades.  If we make the generous assumption that the students are evenly distributed (so that a K-8 school has the same number and FRL percentage of kids in each grade), this is what the data looks like:

Screen shot 2009-10-27 at 10.35.19 PM

There is a sliver of blue in grades 9-12 for the students who attend Distinguished schools, but you have to squint.  Again, this is somewhat distorted since the distribution was smoothed, resulting in cliffs after both 5th and 8th grade, but the real numbers would likely be even less flattering (with an estimated 50% dropout rate between just grades 9-12, imagine how much the actual chart would slope down at the end). The number of kids in the bottom two school categories is somewhat consistent; it is the schools of quality that diminish.

Looking at the same data by percentages:

Screen shot 2009-10-27 at 11.45.37 PM

Under these assumptions, in K-5, a student has about a 1-in-2 chance of going to a school in the top two categories (Meets Expectations and Distinguished). By 9-12 grade, that chance is down to about 1-in-3.  In K-5, about 6% of students attend a Distinguished school.  By 9-12 grades, that drops to under 2%.  If you did the chart with the actual numbers, I’m guessing the difference between the elementary grades and students closest to graduation would be even more stark.

And those depressing statistics are for all students regardless of income.  When you start to look at the numbers by FRL, graphs no longer work because one simply can’t see the percentages as they are so small.  On any reasonable scale, the FRL students who attend Distinguished schools are literally invisible.  Since we can’t graph the data, here is the table. Remember again that there are far more FRL students than Non-FRL in the District:

Screen shot 2009-10-25 at 11.55.50 PM

The FRL percentage actually declines as students move through the system (which makes some unfortunate sense, as FRL students drop out of school at a much higher rate)  So, again under our assumption of even grade distribution within each school, in K-5 the percentage of FRL is actually about 70%, yet within the separate categories FRL students compose 86% of On Probation schools and just 13% of Distinguished schools. By grades 9-12, the overall FRL percentage drops to about 57%.  But the percentage of FRL students enrolled in On Probation schools stays high, at 74%. Low income students are far more likely to attend our worst schools – at the same time that far more of them also drop out altogether.

The top of the table bears some reflection as well.  While there are a number of Distinguished schools that serve K-5 students, they include far fewer FRL students.  The outlier jump in the percentage of FRL students in 6-8 attending a Distinguished school is unfortunately easily explained: West Denver Prep is a Distinguished middle school serving 93% RFL.  Since the base is so low, just one school of quality can make a significant impact.

In fact, there are only three Distinguished schools with students in grades 6-12.  These three schools serve approximately 1,040 students in grades 6-12.  The vast majority of these – fully 85% — attend either grades 6-8 at West Denver Prep (WDP) or 6-12 at the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), both charter schools (the remainder are in the final years at Slavens, which is K-8 and 5% FRL).  What is more alarming is that of the roughly 400 of these 6-12 students that are FRL, roughly 98% attend WDP or DSST.  What this means is that there are less than 10 FRL kids in grades 6-12 attending a traditional Distinguished school. That is shocking enough where it deserves an echo: less than 10 FRL students total attend the highest quality category of Denver’s traditional schools during the second half of their public education.

This is, frankly put, the worst of all worlds. In our democratic society, public education is intended to prepare all students for college or a career, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. To me, a functioning public education system is one of the most important tenants of a civil society.  Yet this data implies that we systematically deny the equal opportunity of our best schools to the students who need it most.  I support many of the current reform efforts in DPS, and I continue to believe the current leadership is the best Denver has had in generations. DPS should be commended for publishing the SPF and being honest about the difficulties they face.  Their leaders are very smart people with the best intentions. But they are not in the schools, and it is in the schools where these challenges must be met.

Although I rarely get accused of underestimating the deficiencies of public education, I confess the sheer despair inherent in the summary SPF data surprised me. I tried to come up with a good ending to this post for a few days, but I can’t. In the end, the lack of a suitable finale may be appropriate.  No matter how one looks for it, for the vast majority of low-income kids at DPS, there is just no good ending.

Notes: Two comments deserve some clarification:

* The SPF accounts for FRL status in the student growth metric in that growth is measured within a demographically-similar cohort.  However the SPF does not weight the performance of an FRL student any differently than a Non-FRL student (i.e. if growth for each cohort was identical, a school serving a high percentage of FRL would be ranked exactly the same on growth as a school with a low percentage of FRL).  The final blunt ranking of schools also does not differentiate between schools serving different cohort groups (it would be an interesting exercise to see the data and rankings within each school cohort, which is here).

** The original wording could be read to imply that there were just two large schools serving grades 9-12 in DPS, which is not accurate; my intent was an examination of these two specific schools, not to say that there were “just” two.

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