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New waivers from school readiness law raise concerns

More than 60 Colorado charter schools — and one of the state’s largest school districts — have been granted exemptions from some requirements of the state’s school readiness law just as it is being rolled out statewide.

Those schools and four districts have been granted waivers by the State Board of Education, which allows them to use their own programs to determine if kindergarteners are ready for first grade.

While the waivers are permitted by state law, some observers are concerned that such flexibility could lead to inconsistency among schools and districts and make it harder to track whether kindergarten students statewide really are prepared for first grade.

While no one seems to be questioning the quality of individual waiver plans, some people are concerned that it will be hard to review the quality of individual school and district readiness tools.

“I’m apprehensive about the trend,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said she also has questions about “the push-to-a-waiver mentality.”

Angelika Schroeder, vice chair of the State Board of Education, also raised questions during the Oct. 7 board meeting at which the issue was discussed.

“Having everybody get a waiver, that would be a problem. … I really don’t want to go against what districts want to do, but I don’t want the legislature to believe we will go against their legislative intent,” she said.

School readiness evaluations of kindergarteners are required by a sweeping 2008 education reform law called the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. Evaluations were supposed to start statewide in the 2013-14 school year, but full rollout was delayed until this year.

Children are not formally tested but rather observed in a structured way by their teachers, who use the information to decide if students have the skills necessary for first grade. Evaluations cannot be used to prevent children from entering first grade.

What’s behind waiver applications

Those familiar with the issue say the surge of waiver applications, which started last April, was prompted by two things. One is advice given last year by the state attorney general’s office to the Colorado Department of Education concluding that schools could seek waivers from the readiness law.

Second, some schools wanted to get waivers before the program’s requirements rolled out statewide this school year.

And some districts and schools have been unhappy with the most widely used readiness assessment tool, Teaching Strategies GOLD.

During its past few meetings the state board has granted waivers to charter schools without discussion and by voting on applications as a group. Schroeder said she has less concern about charter applications because those have to be approved by local school boards before they come to the state.

But waiver applications from school districts have prompted a bit more board discussion. Readiness waivers have been given to three small rural districts in eastern Colorado, Holyoke, Kiowa and Woodlin.

The board faced a different case on Oct. 7, when the 24,578-student Academy 20 district in El Paso County came before the state board for a waiver. Academy is the state’s 11th largest district and is ranked at the top level of the state accreditation system.

“We understand the important purpose underlying the state law,” Academy Assistant Superintendent Susan Field told the board. But she said the district believes its own system for evaluating kindergarteners is “meeting the intent of the law in a manner far better suited to our community.”

She noted that a charter school in her district already has a waiver.

“If the waiver is good for the kindergarten students in our charter school, why isn’t it good for the rest of the kindergarten students?” Field said.

A key reason that Academy wanted a waiver was so it could continue evaluating kindergarteners’ readiness within the structure of its standards-based report cards, which it uses in elementary grades. The district argued that kindergarteners need to kept within that system so that there’s continuity in tracking student progress from grade to grade.

The district’s application contained more than a dozen documents making its case. CDE staff reviewed the application and concluded, “The district provided documentation to demonstrate how the standards-based report card is inclusive of the areas for school readiness.”

The board granted Academy’s request.

Two concerns raised about waivers

Observers of the waiver surge raise two issues.

The first is whether the individual substitute plans offered by school districts are adequate.

“They vary significantly,” Jaeger said. “Do the replacement plans adequately meet the intent of the law? It’s an open question.”

Walmer has a similar feeling. “The replacement plans are all over the map. … I have a concern that the state board isn’t looking closely at the replacement models.” Walmer added, “I’m OK with flexibility as long as we’re holding to the intent of the law.”

One of the sponsors of the CAP4K law had similar thoughts. Former Democratic Rep. Christine Scanlan of Dillon said she hasn’t been following the waiver applications closely, but added, “I hope that those districts who have waived out of the assessments either have good data sharing with preschool providers that give district teachers necessary information to best support the needs of new kindergarteners or that the local assessments being used have proven to be better than the state’s at identifying specific learning needs and gaps.”

Jaeger noted that state law gives the board fairly limited grounds for denying waiver applications.

“It is difficult for the state board to deny waivers even if they have concerns,” he said.

The second concern was voiced by Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder. While charters are overseen by local school boards, she said, “We don’t have a re-evaluation plan for districts,” given that waivers for districts are open-ended. “Where’s the oversight when we grant all these waivers?”

Teaching Strategies GOLD a sore point

Part of school and district anxiety over readiness is driven by the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment tool, usually referred to as TS GOLD.

The tool is widely used by schools and also in the Colorado Preschool Program for at-risk students. Part of that is because for two years it was the only state-approved assessment. Additional tools were added to CDE’s list only last year.

TS GOLD has been criticized by some teachers and administrators as too time-consuming.

Some parent activists also fear it infringes on family privacy with questions asked about a child’s social and emotional development and have worries about the privacy of that data.

“Teaching Strategies GOLD has gotten mixed reviews,” said Jaeger, agreeing that some teachers find it too time-consuming.

A lot of the concerns were summed up in testimony to the board by Cindee Will, principal of the James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs, which has a waiver.

“All that glitters is not gold; it might be fools gold,” she said. Use of the tool “amounts to a significant loss of instructional time.”

Will added, “Assessing the whole child is nothing new … what’s new is the intrusion into personal matters. Teachers are required to upload private and personal data. … Why does personal information have to be uploaded to follow a student throughout their school years and perhaps into their careers?”

Information about students is uploaded to a central database. TS GOLD also allows teachers to upload photos and videos of children to the database, a feature that makes some parent activists nervous. The state doesn’t require use of photos of videos. That decision is left to individual schools and districts.

Reporting whether students are ready

The CAP4K law also requires creation of a statewide data reporting system about the readiness of kindergarten students.

The state board is only beginning to consider that task. Some members indicated during a recent discussion that they want to be careful about that process.

Republican member Debora Scheffel of Parker was critical of the data collected by TS GOLD.

“These data points are far in excess of what’s needed to measure readiness,” she said.

Board chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said, “It would seem to me the legislature wants to know whether kids are school ready. That’s yes or no. That’s two data points. … When it comes to the data collected, less is better.”

What’s next

The flow of school readiness requests may have crested for the moment.

“There are other districts talking about it,” said Michelle Murphy, new executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “There are a lot of other districts interested in it, [but] there are none in the hopper right now.”

Murphy speculated that districts’ interests in waivers may turn to the state’s new graduation guidelines, which have been criticized in some quarters. The state board recently approved those, with the proviso that districts could seek waivers.

“It’s an open question to me if we will see [waiver laws] used for something other than school readiness,” Jaeger said. He and Schroeder both suggested the legislature might want to review the broad question of waivers from education laws.

More immediately, Schroeder said the board itself needs to take a deeper look.

“I think we’re all ready to have a serious conversation about this,” she said.

Learn more about school readiness requirements and programs on the CDE website. Get details on assessments and readiness plans here.

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