Denver Public Schools’ dangerous, data-less spin

Last Friday’s letter to the community from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Marrero left me breathless.

It was a remarkable exemplar of what has become the norm these days for politicians of all stripes. Undermine data, ignore reality, and create a new narrative.

According to Marrero’s letter, the recently released state test scores and our students real academic struggles along with a host of social emotional challenges coming out of the pandemic should be of no concern. Our schools are providing “rigorous, relevant and fun learning environments that allow our young people to thrive in and beyond our schools, and accomplish their dreams after they graduate.”

Marrero said that DPS would not be using the state’s school ratings (SPF) to evaluate the quality of the quality of district schools, and that families should not use them in any way to understand how the schools are serving students or in making choices about where their students should attend school. This despite more than 90 percent of Denver students having participated in the state assessments.

The superintendent did not offer an alternative to the state’s SPF. Not surprisingly, DPS’ rating declined.

Fewer than 23 percent of students qualifying for federally subsidized lunch in Denver are reading at grade level, and even fewer, 14 percent, are performing grade level math as of last spring.

These numbers suggest that more than three-quarters of Denver’s low-income students will not be on track to realize their dreams after they graduate. That is about 40,000 students not currently reading or doing math at grade level!

Given the magnitude of this crisis, I expected Marrero to share the truth about how students are doing and describe what he and his staff are doing to meet the challenge of supporting more students to reach the state’s academic standards. This is the primary role of a district leader.

Instead, He and Deputy Superintendent Tony Smith (in a video accompanying the letter) falsely claimed that because of the low number of students taking the CMAS assessments that the information provided by CMAS and in turn the resulting school ratings are invalid.

If one is to take the Marerro’s letter seriously and apply it across all of Colorado, then all of the 2022 assessment results and resulting school ratings by the state of Colorado are invalid.

This is especially remarkable because DPS dropped its own imperfect rating system not long ago to embrace the state’ even more imperfect rating system, even though the state’s system had a lower bar and was less weighted on student growth.

There is no perfect school rating system. They all have their pluses and minuses and should be used with other tools to evaluate school quality. But to say that neither the state’s nor Denver’s former school ratings do not reflect the achievement level of students in a particular school is simply not true.

Friday’s letter did mention that the district will be developing a new school rating system (that must be approved by the state) but as far as I can tell there is no evidence that this work is happening. And it remains totally unclear why the district may be developing a new rating system. Is it going to be a tool for families to choose schools? A tool for the district to help improve schools?

Families have a right to know how their students are doing and how well the schools are doing in meeting their student’s and other children’s needs. This issue was supposedly settled nearly 30 years ago with advent of educational standards in Colorado.

I can only hope that the community is not distracted by the district’s attempts to dismiss the learning crisis in Denver and that Denverites apply pressure to the DPS board and superintendent to get to work supporting student learning in Denver.

There is not a minute to waste.

Van Schoales
Van Schoales
Van Schoales former president of A+ Colorado, has 30 years’ experience leading education reform efforts from the classroom to the statehouse. Van has led or help found a number of non-profits, including the Odyssey School, Denver School of Science and Technology, Democrats for Education Reform Colorado, and Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools. He was an award winning high school science teacher in the Bay Area and has authored a variety of papers on school choice, charter schools, school accountability, student achievement, science education, school design, state policy, and other education improvement topics.

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