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Report: Colorado takes a hands-off approach when schools don’t serve students well

When Colorado schools don’t do a good job educating certain groups of students — like students of color or those learning English — state education officials can suggest ways to improve student performance and help districts find funding for new programs and training.

But Colorado largely leaves it up to school districts to choose their approach — and it doesn’t levy the same consequences on these schools as it does for those that are deemed low-performing under its state accountability system.

This hands-off approach leaves students at risk, according to a new report from the Collaborative for Student Success and HCM Strategies that examined how states are implementing their plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind.

The law requires every state to have a plan that lays out how it will measure student achievement and what it will do to improve performance among groups of students who aren’t meeting academic goals. That system uses different criteria and different interventions than the state system, a disconnect that the report said undermines efforts to improve schools so that they serve all students.

The Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit education advocacy organization that supports test-based accountability systems, worked with partners to evaluate the implementation of plans in 17 states, including Colorado. Funders of the Collaborative for Student Success  include several organizations that also fund Chalkbeat: Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gave a lot of authority back to the states when it comes to improving low-performing schools, but Nakia Edwards, a peer reviewer who worked on the study, said with that authority comes responsibility. States like Colorado that put a lot of emphasis on local control may end up doing students a disservice.

“It really is about civil rights protections,” she said. “The law was originally written toward this notion of equity and making sure all students are served well in public education, so there has to be oversight.

“If we believe that states are the right level for that civil rights protection to come from, it is my opinion that states have to be willing and able to step in if a local community is persistently not meeting the needs of some students. Who is there to protect the students?”

In releasing the analysis, the organization is trying to keep pressure on states to do more to improve academic performance, particular for students of color and those from low-income families. It comes as Colorado is wrestling with how to handle schools that have not improved under its own accountability system. One school district and three schools had hearings Wednesday before the State Board of Education after earlier rounds of intervention did not produce results.

“Having dual state and federal accountability systems, where the state has one system to identify a school for intervention and another to meet federal law, undermine the ability to drive change and improve outcomes,” the report said. “Discrepancies between the two accountability systems could result in confusion and negate the impact of school improvement efforts.”

The state system looks at the overall performance of schools and districts, while the federal law puts more emphasis on whether schools are doing a good job educating students from traditionally disadvantaged groups. The state system relies more heavily on measures of how much academic progress students are making, while the federal system looks at whether students are meeting certain expectations. 

Schools identified as low-performing under the state system eventually end up in front of the State Board of Education if they don’t improve. The state board can order actions that range from giving schools more flexibility to try new things to charter conversion or even closure. Schools flagged for not serving certain students under federal law might have a good rating under the state system and never face the same potential for consequences.

Colorado education officials wanted to preserve the state system as they worked to develop their plan under the federal law, and this insistence held up approval of the federal plan for months.

The report suggests that Colorado should incorporate measures of how certain subgroups are performing into its state accountability framework so that schools and districts understand how important it is to serve all students equally. Denver, a district that has been plagued by persistent gaps in academic performance and graduation rates between more affluent white students and others, recently started incorporating those gaps into its own school ratings.

Reviewers gave Colorado high marks in several areas, including strategic use of funds, engagement with community members and parents, and building capacity at the local level. And they called out the system the state education department uses to explain options and funding to districts.

“Colorado provides a very robust menu of supports for districts and schools identified for improvement,” the report said. “These resources are presented and explained clearly, packaged in a way that will enable local leaders to take advantage of them. The multiple routes districts may use to make improvement is also a strong example of local autonomy being balanced against state-level priorities.”

Read the full report here.

Read the analysis of Colorado’s ESSA plan below.