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School ratings inch up a bit

New state ratings of individual schools showed slight increases in the percentage of Colorado public schools in the two highest categories and declines in the two lowest categories.

Evaluation illustration

The 2012 school ratings were approved Wednesday morning by the State Board of Education following last month’s release of district ratings.

The two sets of ratings are the centerpiece of the state’s education accreditation system, which sets a five-year timeline for improvement of districts and schools rated in the lowest categories. This year’s ratings start the fourth year of the system, which was created by a 2009 law.

The ratings also determine what kind of improvement plans districts and schools must develop and implement.

The system has four levels. Performance is the highest, followed by Improvement, Priority Improvement and Turnaround. Here are the percentages of schools in each category for this year and 2011:

  • Performance: 70.7 percent in 2012, up from 69.5 percent in 2011
  • Improvement: 19.6 percent, up from 18.3 percent
  • Priority improvement: 7.4 percent, down from 8.9 percent
  • Turnaround: 2.4 percent, down from 3.3 percent

Most schools, 77 percent, remained at the same rating level as 2011. Some 11.9 percent of schools moved up one or more levels, while 11.2 percent dropped one or more.

Department officials said the decrease in the number of schools at the two lowest levels may be attributable to improved practices at some schools, the impact of intervention grants at some schools and districts closing low-performing schools.

Schools that remain at the priority improvement or turnaround levels for five consecutive years are subject to closure, conversion or other significant change. Here are the numbers of schools that are on the five-year clock, starting July 1, 2013:

  • 70 schools are in year one
  • 61 schools are in year two
  • 60 schools are in year three

Noting that the five-year clock is ticking, board chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, asked, “Do we have some method of trying to play this out?” He was referring to schools that may not be able to improve their ratings enough to avoid conversion, closure or other changes.

Alyssa Pearson, CDE director of accountability and data analysis, said the department is looking at struggling schools whose performance is flat or declining. “We’re really trying to break down those numbers.”

Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen said, “We are actively trying to work with them [districts and schools] now to plan for the future.”

Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education / File photo
Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education / File photo

Schaffer said, “In years four and five all parties will be served very well if there’s actually planning … for what to do in year five.”

Owen responded, “That’s exactly the line of thinking,” saying the department is telling districts “let’s plan for the best, but you need to be aware of where things are heading. … These are really tough conversations to have with communities.”

Board member Jane Goff, D-7th District, wondered about districts that stay in the Improvement category without moving up to Performance or down to Priority Improvement. “Where’s the improvement? What’s going on?”

Owen said, “That’s a point we’re looking at as well,” suggesting that at Improvement schools “there’s maybe not the same focus, approach to make those kinds of changes that need to happen” as there is in lower-rated schools, which face consequences after five years.

Poverty raised as factor in performance

Superintendents from several high-poverty districts have become increasingly concerned that the state accreditation system places an unfair burden on such districts because the system doesn’t factor in the impact of poverty on academic achievement.

Superintendents Charlotte Ciancio of Mapleton and Pam Swanson testified to the board on Nov. 15, raising the issue and asking CDE’s help in working on it.

Board member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, raised the issue again, asking department staff if they could provide information on which districts have been doing the best job improving high-poverty schools.

Owen said, “We are exploring that,” but he cautioned against changing academic expectations for any specific group of students. “When you start adjusting an accountability plan and weighting it … you’ve essentially changed the trajectory” of poor students and reduced their chances of high school graduation.

“I’m not suggesting that we make any changes in the accountability system,” Berman said.

Here’s a list showing school movement between rating levels from 2011 to 2012:

  • 1,245 schools remained at the same rating level
  • 1 school moved down three levels
  • 13 schools moved down two levels
  • 167 schools moved down one level
  • 161 schools moved up one level
  • 25 schools moved up two levels
  • 4 schools moved up three levels

Alternative education campuses

The state assigns performance ratings to alternative education campuses based on somewhat different criteria. (Such campuses have very high percentages of at-risk students, and most are alternative high schools.)

Here are the numbers of alternative campuses at each performance level:

  • Performance: 28 in 2012, 25 in 2011
  • Improvement: 23 in 2012 and 19 in 2011
  • Priority improvement: 14 in 2012 and 17 in 2011
  • Turnaround: 11 in each year

Appeals

The law allows for both districts and schools to appeal their ratings. This year 12 schools requested reconsideration of their results. Nine were approved and three were not. While the state categorizes schools by the type of improvement plan required, districts actually accredit their own schools and an assign schools to a lower rating, based on a district’s own evaluation system.

An appeal by the Mapleton district of its priority improvement rating is pending, but the State Board may not hear it until February.

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