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State honors top districts, high growth

Three outgoing state leaders thanked educators in Colorado’s highest-performing districts and in its high-poverty but high-growth schools on Thursday, while warning of tough challenges ahead.

Gov. Bill Ritter said it likely was his last opportunity to address an audience in the marble lobby of the Colorado Department of Education and he talked about four years’ worth of education initiatives, from preschool for at-risk children to dual enrollment programs putting 6,000 high school students in college classes.

“What we do know is that you don’t turn this on a dime,” he said of school reform. “That there’s no magic wand, there’s no snap-of-the-finger panacea that says let’s take the dropout rate and cut it in half and do it in a legislative session. It’s not going to happen.”

Ritter signed into law the Education Accountability Act of 2009, which created the state’s new ratings for districts and for schools. It also created “Centers of Excellence,” honoring schools with poverty rates of at least 75 percent that are showing sustained academic growth over time.

Principals, teachers, students and others representing 45 of those schools for 2009 and 2010, and the 14 school districts to earn the top rating of “accredited with distinction,” filled the CDE lobby and applauded enthusiastically for Ritter, for Randy DeHoff, in his last month of 12 years on the State Board of Education, and for Dwight Jones, who leaves the state education commissioner’s job next week.

DeHoff unveiled the latest version of the state’s new school data center, which provides a wealth of data for educators that was little imagined when he took office in 1999. The accountability act requires much of the information be accessible to the public.

“It really has been some remarkable progress,” he said, noting one of his initial tasks as board member was writing rules for a new accountability system that, for the first time, put the CDE in charge of accrediting school districts.

Colorado’s Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, was only a year or two old then, DeHoff pointed out. It has expanded in grades and subjects since, along with the increasing emphasis on data.

Richard Wenning, the state’s associate education commissioner and data guru, said pupils statewide have made gains in those years – but there’s still far to go.

“Most students in Colorado that start off behind, still stay behind. And that fact sums up our performance challenge as a state and as a nation.”
— Richard WenningGrowth gaps between student groups have declined. Between 2004 and 2010, the difference in academic growth rates in reading between Hispanic and white students narrowed from 7 percentile points in 2004 to 2 percentile points in 2010.

And the black-white growth gap in reading dropped from 3 percentile points to 1 percentile point in that same time period. Similar gains were made in math.

“That means we have come a long way in ensuring that students make at least a year’s growth in a year’s time,” Wenning said.

But the achievement gaps still loom large – Hispanic students lag whites by 25 percentage points in reading on state exams – and students are not progressing fast enough to close them. Just 35 percent of students below grade level in reading are making enough progress to catch up to proficiency. In math, it’s only 13 percent.

“Most students in Colorado that start off behind, still stay behind,” Wenning said. “And that fact sums up our performance challenge as a state and as a nation.”

Jones said the new data center will help by allowing educators to easily find schools with similar demographics and compare performance.

“If you’re doing better, then expect to get some calls from some of your colleagues to say what are you doing to make that kind of progress?” he said. “If you are not doing as well, then expect to make some calls.”

The kinds of gains made by schools and districts represented in the audience, Jones said, gave him reason for optimism.

“Folks, we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “I used to say hope is not a strategy. But the hope that is presented in this room by those of you beating the odds makes me optimistic.”

Associate Commissioner Richard Wenning

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones

Gov. Bill Ritter

Colorado’s highest-rated school districts – accredited with distinction

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Colorado’s lowest-rated school districts – accredited on turnaround

[table id=21 /]*Five of the 7 “turnaround” districts did not meet the 95 percent test-participation bar set by the state, lowering their rating in some cases.

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