Grading system ranks Colorado schools on proficiency, growth

Bob Ward
Aspen Journalism

2014 letter grades for public schools

Aspen Schools

(The three grades that appear in order next to each school are for overall, proficiency and growth)

Aspen Elementary, B, B+, C+

Aspen Middle, A+, B, C

Aspen Community, B, B-, B

Aspen High, B+, A-, C

Basalt Schools

Basalt Elementary, C, C, C

Basalt Middle, B, C, B

Basalt High, C, C, C


A coalition of nonprofit groups called Colorado School Grades recently published its 2014 letter grades for public schools across the state, but school officials remain leery of the group’s methods.

A few keystrokes can take any Colorado parent or child to, where it’s easy to search for any public school and see a quick, user-friendly snapshot of that school’s academic performance. Eighteen nonprofit organizations are part of Colorado School Grades, including Colorado Succeeds, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, The Independence Institute, the Morgridge Family Foundation, the Adolph Coors Foundation, The Anschutz Foundation and others. For several years, the website has provided every individual school a letter grade — A, B, C, D or F, often with a plus or minus attached — and additional details related to students’ results on standardized tests.

For parents who are trying to choose a school for their children to attend, the site makes it easy to compare different schools or peruse an individual school’s brief report.

“The central thing that unites the 18 groups (in Colorado School Grades) is making sure there’s a great school choice for every kid,” said Kristina Saccone, a spokesperson for the coalition. “One of the key pieces is making sure parents have access to school performance data.”

For a complete look at how Aspen and Basalt schools fared, go to and search for individual schools by name. For the short version, see chart.

Every year, the Colorado Department of Education generates reams of numbers regarding students’ performance on a battery of standardized tests. Colorado School Grades uses the state data but converts them into an easily digestible form for parents. The highlight, for better or worse, is the letter grade.

“I think the original intent, and it’s not a bad one, is to create a system where parents can get a sense of comparability between schools,” said Diana Sirko, superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District. “Where I have heartburn with it is that it’s graded on a curve.”

Grading on a curve tends to separate schools into winners and losers that are usually determined more by economics and demographics than the quality of instruction, Sirko said. To many school officials, the coalition grades oversimplify the complex social, economic and ethnic equations at each individual school.

“I don’t feel like it’s a fair and accurate assessment because it doesn’t use a very robust body of evidence,” Sirko added.

The coalition grading methodology was developed in consultation with the University of Colorado, Denver, and R-Squared Research in Littleton. It mimics the state’s “school performance framework” in many respects but departs from it in computing and awarding letter grades.

The state system divides schools into four categories using testing data — “performance” for the highest performing schools (60 percent), “improvement” for the second tier (25 percent), “priority improvement” for the next, lower group (10 percent) and “turnaround” for the lowest performers (5 percent). Saccone said it doesn’t tell parents much when 60 percent of schools are in the top category, so part of CSG’s aim is to provide a finer-grained picture.

Saccone admits that “for any school, the grade is only one measure. You have to look at a lot of other factors as to why that school got an A or an F — it could be demographic, it could be a leadership transition, it could be anything.”

However, she added, Colorado’s assessment and accountability system “is one of the best school-rating systems in the country,” and Colorado School Grades is a good “starting point” for any curious parent.

Aspen School District Superintendent John Maloy understands the need to make the state data more accessible to parents, but he, too, worries that the grades will mostly coincide with the demographics in a given school community.

“Schools and teachers shouldn’t be punished or rewarded based on their poverty level,” Maloy said.

Based on Aspen’s generally high-income profile and the financial support of the community, he added, “I would think all of our schools … should score an A or a B.” For the most part, he was correct: Aspen Elementary School received an overall B and Aspen High School a B+. Aspen Community School, a K-8 charter school, earned a B for grades 3-5 (elementary) and an A+ for grades 6-8 (middle). Aspen Middle School got an overall C.

Maloy suggested local parents read Colorado School Grades reports with open minds. “If you’re really interested in knowing the success of a school, you need to visit it, talk to the personnel, talk to the principal, talk to the parents,” he said. “A snapshot of a school, using a standardized assessment, is just that: a snapshot.”

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