Education: The Real Cost of Achievement

June 2012

Two years ago in August, 5280 published its annual education issue. The theme of this edition changes every year, and in 2010 we ranked the metro area’s top public elementary schools. To do this we used the Colorado Growth Model, which measures schools according to how proficient kids are at each grade level and how well they’re advancing from year to year.

We also added a wrinkle: To break ties and get the list to the desired 25 schools, we looked at free and reduced lunch (FRL) statistics. Our thinking was that schools with higher FRL numbers that also showed strong growth model results were, by definition, doing more with less, because their students had disadvantages that kids (and schools) from more fortunate backgrounds didn’t have to face.

This approach resulted in the inclusion of Beach Court Elementary, a primarily Hispanic bilingual school in west Denver. Beach Court’s proficiency numbers were above average, but its growth numbers were extraordinary. A score of 50 means a school is helping its students keep pace from grade to grade. Beach Court’s were all above 75, so its students were making tremendous academic strides each school year. When we factored in the school’s FRL number of almost 96 percent—meaning virtually every student hailed from an impoverished background—Beach Court’s success seemed almost miraculous.

As we learned this week, if it seems too good to be true…well, you know the rest.

A Colorado Department of Education investigation concluded that Beach Court had systematically inflated its standardized test scores in 2010 and 2011. Investigators concluded that Beach Court teachers were not involved, but its administration may have been. Principal Frank Roti—the widely popular leader who’s been lauded for his work by numerous entities (including 5280) and who has received undisclosed performance bonuses—has been dismissed by the Denver Public Schools district and has yet to comment on the allegations. Other school administrators have denied any wrongdoing.

This controversy is nowhere near a resolution. As it unfolds, it will raise questions like, what happened, who’s responsible, and is this a broader problem that deserves closer scrutiny throughout DPS? It also may offer a lesson about the consequences of tying public school performance and funding so closely to standardized tests.

However this plays out, here’s hoping that we never lose sight of the fact that the real victims in all of this are the students and families of Beach Court. There’s little doubt that the school’s test scores and resulting publicity made it a place where kids were excited to learn. Our main objective going forward should be to do whatever we can to ensure that these kids will continue striving for excellence. 

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