An independent analysis of the Colorado School Grades website uncovered several flaws in the methods the site uses to compare school performance.
Colorado School Grades advertises itself as a site that provides an “intuitive, easy-to-understand report card” as opposed to the Colorado Department of Education SchoolView Data Center, but further examination revealed that the Colorado School Grades site is subject to the same flaws it criticizes in the state rating system.
The organization advertises that every child deserves a high-performing school, but it uses a method that grades on a curve. This method places 50 percent of schools in the C category each year, regardless of proficiency or improvement.
“It’s arbitrary,” said Rod Lucero, an associate education professor at Colorado State University. “We can’t ever distill academic success into a letter grade or a test score,” he said.
One of the site’s sponsors argued that the state’s “performance” rating of 70 percent of the schools amounted to grade inflation in a statement released to EdNews Colorado. “Parents would never accept rampant grade inflation in the classroom that gives 70 percent of the students an A grade,” said Colorado Succeeds President Tim Taylor.
Whether parents will accept a Colorado School Grades system that gives Cs to performance schools that met all state expectations in all categories alongside improvement schools that did not meet state expectations remains to be seen. The Colorado School Grades curve forces both performance and improvement schools into the same grade category. The state uses four categories to rate schools: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.
A Colorado School Grades memo explains that they chose to grade on a curve that produced 10 percent A schools, 10 percent D schools and 5 percent F schools. The memo goes on to explain that they tested methods that would have produced 50 percent B schools and 25 percent C schools or vice versa, and ultimately decided to force 50 percent of schools into the C category.
It is unclear from the memo why they chose to put 50 percent of schools into the C category instead of a B category. Colorado School Grades criticized the state for ranking schools from the 31st percentile to the 99th percentile as “performance,” but their C category (C- to C+) encompasses schools from the 15th to 65th percentile.
Of 30 Jeffco elementary schools that received a C from Colorado School Grades, composite 2012 TCAP reading scores ranged from a high of 88 to a low of 42 percent. Eleven of the schools that received a C have an “improvement” rating from the state, while 17 others received performance ratings. Two of the schools that received a C on the website closed due to budget cuts after the 2010-11 school year but still appear during searches for schools in the district or in their respective cities.
Even schools that received an A grade show considerable differences. Most had composite TCAP reading scores between 90 to 97 percent, but two had much lower scores of 82 percent.
Colorado School Grades did not respond to requests for an interview.
Colorado School Grades says it translates the state’s ratings into “simpler, easier-to-understand letter grades to provide a clearer picture of school performance,” but that does not explain why schools with improvement ratings and schools with performance ratings received the same grade.
The site uses the state’s weighting system. In elementary schools, academic performance counts for 25 percent, academic growth counts for 50 percent, and academic growth gaps count for 25 percent. In middle and high schools, the first three categories are weighted at 15, 35 and 15 percent respectively, with the remaining 35 percent calculated according to a measure called post-secondary and workforce readiness.
Academic performance, growth and growth gap scores are based completely on scores from the former CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) and current TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program) tests. Post-secondary and workforce readiness is based on graduation rates and ACT scores, though the ACT does not assess job readiness. ACT says its college benchmark scores measure the “knowledge and skills a student needs to enroll and succeed in credit-bearing first-year courses at a postsecondary institution.”
Although Colorado School Grades encourages users to “take action” through a Facebook pop-up and by contacting school personnel, school accountability teams, school boards and state legislators, the site does not provide any data beyond undefined letter grades. Those who wish to see actual TCAP and ACT scores, growth scores and similar data must go to the state’s SchoolView website.
Colorado School Grades also advertises itself as a tool for school choice, but it does not provide information other than letter grades in any category.
The state’s SchoolView site, in comparison, includes the same accountability information used by the grades website, along with a comparison of state expectations, whether a school is meeting or approaching state expectations in each accountability category, and composite TCAP scores. SchoolView also includes information about courses offered, health programs and more, each accessible through a clearly-labeled tab.
Lucero suggested that parents visit the school and meet with the principal when selecting a school for their child.
“What’s a great school for my kid may not be a great school for your kid,” he said.
Lucero also pointed out that finding ways to improve is a continual process for educators at all levels.
“We will never finish being better. We will always find ways to grow,” he said.
The bottom line, he continued, is that “our schools are in the hands of incredible professionals whose only goal is to make the world a better place.”