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Struggling district may appeal accreditation rating

A tiny suburban school district is considering challenging the state over its accountability system, arguing its rating does not accurately reflect the district’s progress.

Sheridan Schools, one of 11 districts nearing the end of the so-called state “accountability clock,” will decide by the end of the month whether it will ask the State Board of Education to have its annual accreditation rating upped to create some breathing room after four years of intense turnaround efforts southwest of Denver.

Those efforts, district officials believe, have been enough to ward off the possibility of drastic state intervention and should be seen as a model school district that serves mostly poor students of color.

“We believe we ought to be heading down [to the state department of education] to receive an award,” said Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough.

Additionally, Sheridan officials contend that the state’s data-driven assessments are warped to favor larger school districts and add undue disadvantages to already struggling school districts.

Since 2010, the Colorado Department of Education has evaluated districts and their schools. The annual rankings, or performance frameworks, are linked to district accreditations. Districts that fall in the bottom two categories, “priority improvement” or “turnaround,” have five years to meet the department’s expectations or lose their accreditation.

No district has lost its accreditation — yet. But within a year, the state board of education may be faced with striping two rural districts of their accreditation. And within two years, Sheridan and another eight districts could face similar consequences if they don’t improve.

What the loss of accreditation means and how a district may re-establish good standing is mostly a mystery in Colorado, and certainly untested. Last fall the state’s board heard potential scenarios from CDE staff that included converting performing schools into charters, or closing them out right, to a complete reorganization of the district.

Diplomas in a safe

No one at Sheridan Schools doubts they can — and must — do better.

“Our kids need to catch up,” Clough, the superintendent said.

And they have been. While Sheridan students’ proficiency levels still drastically drag behind state averages, the district’s academic growth — the state’s most coveted measure of student learning — in most subjects and grade levels has either met or is approaching the levels the state believes students need to close the achievement gap and be proficient.

“It has not been without some pain and a lot of hard work,” Clough said.

That growth is also, importantly, seen in historically marginalized groups of students like those who qualify for free or reduced lunch, those who speak a language other than English at home and those who live with disabilities.

In fact, neither the district’s elementary or middle school rank among the lowest-performing nor are they on the state’s school accountability clock.

CDE’s Executive Director for Accountability and Data Analysis Alyssa Pearson said such a scenario is rare.

And in spite of the positive indicators on half of the four measures that make up a district’s accreditation rating — student growth and how quickly the district is closing its achievement gap — the district is still on the clock because of one measure: post-secondary preparedness.

Under the 2008 state statute that created the rankings and accountability clock, growth and post-secondary readiness are the most important factors in evaluating Colorado schools. Because of that, the state weighs those two measures more heavily, and make up 70 percent of a district’s rating.

To gauge student’s post-secondary preparedness, the state evaluates ACT scores, graduation and dropout rate. Sheridan’s composite ACT score is four points shy of the state’s expectation. And its 2012 graduation rate is eight percentage points behind the 80 percent requirement.

But Clough believes his district’s graduation rate is much higher, north of 90 percent.

That’s because Sheridan Schools offers three different diplomas: standard, advance and 21st Century. To qualify for a 21st Century diploma, students much complete all of their high school requirements and at least one year of college, usually at Arapahoe Community College.

The district has about 60 students enrolled at ACC, Clough said. And he argues those students, who are usually 19- or 20-years-old, should count toward the district’s graduation rate because they’ve already been through the pomp and circumstance of a traditional graduation, but have relinquished a standard diploma back to the district while they complete their college classes that the district is paying for.

The diplomas, Clough said, “are sitting in a safe.”

Because of the possibility Sheridan may appeal its rating to the state board, CDE staff declined to comment on Clough’s claim, but said the issuing of diplomas is left to the discretion of the local school board and district.

In an earlier appeal to CDE staff before the accreditation levels were made public, Sheridan requested CDE use the 2013 graduation rate and add those students who have been issued diplomas but have chosen to stay enrolled. At the time the annual report was issued, graduation rates for the immediate spring aren’t finalized.

And, CDE staff said, “the students that Sheridan would like to include will be included when they do formally graduate.”

“We don’t relish the game”

Both Sheridan officials and CDE staff have complimented each other back-and-forth on the willingness to improve the outcome for students.

Every district on the accountability clock has a dedicated CDE employee assigned to them to work through data, instruction and alignment. Sheridan’s caseworker, Cindy Ward, “lives with us,” Clough jokes.

The goal is to move the districts off the clock. But Sheridan officials feel they could be trapped in a perpetual state of turnaround because of how the state awards points on their annual reviews.

Each year the state assigns an average growth percentile, or AGP, to districts based on how much students need to grow in order to be proficient.

In some instances, Sheridan was asked to post growth scores in the 99 percentile, or catch students up by at least two grade levels — an impossible feat, Sheridan and CDE staff agree.

Districts that do not meet their AGP are assessed by a different scale than those districts that do. And that scale is harsher, Clough said. If Sheridan were to be awarded points based on the latter scale, the framework report would have a higher outcome, maybe even enough to be taken off the accountability clock.

But Pearson defended the state’s practice of defining growth goals. It’s important, she said, for school districts to know how much it will take to bring students to proficient levels.

“We don’t believe the measure is adequate,” Clough said.

Defending the framework, Pearson said CDE developed the measurements with stakeholders throughout the education community and up and down the state. And, she said, the current framework is a far fairer instrument than its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress report that only gauged whether students were proficient. The framework, in its current iteration, creates statewide context and a consistent understanding.

“The accountability system is to measure how we’re doing on getting all of those kids to the goal,” Pearson said.

Clough is fine with measuring progress toward a finish line. But believes the state should find a better way to hold districts accountable to a realistic pace.

“We don’t relish the game.”

Sheridan Schools will make its decision on an appeal by the end of the month.

Update: This post has been updated to more accurately contextualize CDE’s Executive Director for Accountability and Data Analysis comment regarding the rarity of Sheridan Schools’ accreditation rating; the inclusion of dropout rates as a measure for post-secondary preparedness and comments from CDE about how school districts are solely responsible to determine which of its students graduate.

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