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Study weighs enrollment count options

Consultants who prepared the new Colorado Average Daily Membership Study suggest that the state change its method of counting students.

But the nuanced and carefully worded document notes that cost constraints and many layers of complexity surround the issue of how to most accurately count students in the state’s schools.

The 82-page study was commissioned by the 2010 legislature and will be presented to the State Board of Education on Wednesday. (Read the full document here.)

Because of delays in raising the private funding required for the study, the work didn’t begin until late last year, and an advisory committee involved in the effort met only three times.

Enrollment counts have become a cause for some education reformers, who believe Colorado’s current Oct. 1 count makes it too easy for districts to let at-risk students drop out after the count is finished. Enrollment is a key factor in allocation of state financial aid to school districts.

The Colorado Children’s Campaign has made the issue its top legislative priority for 2011.

Chris Watney, CCC president, told Education News Colorado Tuesday, “I was disappointed ultimately with the lack of solid recommendations. While there were differing opinions about the viability of making changes to the count date at this time, I believe there was a shared belief among members that a single count is not the most effective way to ensuring that we are counting our students accurately or funding our schools appropriately as a result.”

Many school district officials resent the implication that they don’t try to retain problem students and point to the state’s new district and school accountability system providing good regulatory incentives for districts to retain students.

(Interestingly, study authors said they found “no empirical evidence” in research literature that a different counting system improves retention, although they found “some anecdotal evidence” that it does.)

Colorado school enrollment currently is calculated using school attendance on Oct. 1. There is a “window” around that date to account for students absent for illness and for districts with different kinds of calendars.

The average daily membership method calculates student totals based on the average of the number of pupils on a district’s books on multiple selected days throughout the school year. Some form of membership system is used by about three quarters of states, the report said.

The researchers tested data from the Colorado Department of Education and calculated that average daily membership is about 2 percent lower each year than the figure generated by the Oct. 1 count.

Justin Silverstein / file photo
Justin Silverstein
TN.Gov

The advisory committee itself didn’t make specific recommendations, but the consultants who wrote the study did make suggestions. The consultants were Justin Silverstein of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates; Mark Fermanich of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, and Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project.

In addition to recommending the state move to the ADM method, they suggested:

• Creating a statewide definition of membership, including the number of unexcused absences after which a student is taken off district rolls.

• Refining the method of counting part-time students so they can be counted by quarters or fifths, rather than merely as full-time or half-time.

• Improvement of the definitions for alternative kinds of students, such as those in concurrent enrollment programs or online classes, to improve count accuracy.

• Creation of a statewide, real-time student data system that would allow the state to pull information from district databases.

• Review of enrollment audit procedures to minimize the burden on school districts.

“We agree that the budgetary impact of any proposed changes should be given serious consideration given the current fiscal climate, and to the extent possible additional funding should be provided to offset these costs,” the consultants wrote. Alternatively, they suggested any new system could be phased in over time.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry / File photo
Aurora Superintendent John Barry

Changing the enrollment count system is a touchy issue for many district leaders, who fear it could further disrupt funding in a time of financial stress. Aurora Superintendent John Barry strongly raised the concern at the second meeting of the advisory group (see story).

Among principles suggested by the consultants were “The counting method should not result in decreased K-12 funding in the state” and “District funding should be held harmless for some period of time if changes to the counting method are adopted.”

The report also noted that on the advisory committee “Concerns were raised that this is not the year to make any changes.”

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