Friday, June 22, 2012

Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process for the 2011-2012 School Year

Denver Public Schools (DPS) recently completed its first round of school choice using a new unified approach called SchoolChoice. Prior to this year, charter schools, magnet schools and neighborhood schools used different processes to enroll students. One analysis of the prior system estimated that there were over 60 different procedures for school choice in place. In an attempt to create a more streamlined and equitable approach to school choice, a unified school choice process was put into place.

This year, for the first time, charter, magnet and neighborhood schools all participated in the same process. Families completed one form to rank their top five choices for schools. A new matching procedure was used to match students with their requested schools in an equitable manner. In a separate report, Dr. Gary Kochenberger described how the matching procedure worked and concluded that it performed as intended.

This report describes analyses of SchoolChoice enrollment data to shed light on how the process worked and to inform refinements to the process going forward. This report addresses five major research questions: 1) Who participated in the SchoolChoice process? 2) How were seats distributed across the district? 3) What were students' choices? 4) With which schools did students get matched? 5) What does the choice information tell us about demand for schools?

The group of students who participated in SchoolChoice was similar to the district as a whole in terms of race/ethnicity and free/reduced lunch status. The quality of available seats offered to SchoolChoice participants the district was examined using the district’s School Performance Framework (SPF) rating as the measure of quality. Across the district, about half of offered elementary and middle school seats were in higher-rated schools. About half of the offered high school seats were in schools rated as On Watch.

A large proportion of students were matched with one of the schools they requested. Over two-thirds of students overall were matched with their first choice. Students who qualified for free or reduced lunch were slightly more likely to get one of their choices and more likely to get their first choice than students who did not qualify. Hispanic students were most likely of the racial and ethnic groups to be matched with any choice and their first choice; white students were the least likely.

Interestingly, students in these same subgroups (i.e., qualify for free or reduced lunch, Hispanic, live in the Northwest or Southwest regions of the city) all tended to choose lower rated schools as their first choices, on average. Students who qualified for free and reduced lunch and Hispanic students were more likely to live in regions of the city that tended to have fewer seats in higher rated schools and more seats in lower-rated schools, which may explain why they tended to choose lower rated schools as their first choices.

Nonetheless, the fact that they tended to choose lower rated schools may explain, at least in part, why they were more likely to get their first choices, as the SPF rating of schools was strongly related to the demand for schools. After taking into account the SPF points earned by the schools that students requested, we found that demographic characteristics were largely unrelated to the SPF ratings of the schools with which students were actually matched.

That is, any apparent demographic differences in the SPF ratings of schools with which students were matched are actually due to the differences in the types of schools that students from different demographic groups request. This highlights the fairness of the matching procedure but also raises questions about the extent to which all students are making requests that reflect their true preferences. The old system for choice in DPS provided incentives for some students to misrepresent their choices. The new procedure eliminates this need, but these results raise questions about the extent to which parent behavior has changed along with the SchoolChoice process.

About two-thirds of students’ requests were for schools in the same region of the city as they resided. Students in the non-transition grades requested schools outside their home region more often than students entering other grades. Hispanic students tended to choose schools within their home region more often than students of other races/ethnicities. Students residing in the Near Northeast region made the smallest percentage of choices in their home region. Finally, generally speaking students who were currently enrolled in lower-performing schools tended to make more choices from within their region than students in higher performing schools.

In sum, many students participated in the SchoolChoice process. It is impossible from these data to determine if those who did not participate intended to choose to attend their neighborhood school or if more marketing is needed to engage more students in the process.

For those that did participate, the process did not appear to disadvantage minority or low-income students. There was evidence that families showed a preference for higher-performing schools, but that the strength of that preference varied by demographic characteristics, including where in the city students resided. It is clear from these analyses that demographic characteristics, region of the city in which students reside, the extent to which they request higher-rated schools, and their willingness to attend a school outside of the region in which they live are all factors that are highly associated with one another and with the school with which a student was ultimately matched.

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