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Grad requirements, seat time and other statewide school issues to watch in Colorado

Erin Reiner grades her students’ projects at her home in Lakewood on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
A Jeffco teacher works from home during remote learning.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

As school districts in Colorado spend the next weeks planning for how students might return to schools this fall, state leaders will have to provide guidance on several issues.

Although they haven’t issued final rules yet, it is likely many students in Colorado will not attend school in person every day of the school week. When students moved to learning online in March, state leaders passed executive orders to quickly address policy implications as a result.

But now, there will be more time to plan, consider those policy changes and get more input.

The state education commissioner has told the State Board of Education members that they will get a chance to weigh in on several decisions for the next school year.

“There’s really no mistaking that next year will be a disruptive year,” Commissioner Katy Anthes told the board this month. “We have a whole set of options.”

Below are some of the issues that educators will be watching:

Attendance

When schools went to remote learning this spring, Colorado allowed school districts to stop taking attendance. The department encouraged districts to track student participation, but did not require them to report to the state.

That made it difficult to compare participation in remote learning when districts and schools have different standards for counting a student as engaged as opposed to absent.

Some educators are also concerned that lax attendance rules didn’t motivate students nor encourage parents as much as going to school in person.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, the state factored the number of chronically absent students into school and district quality ratings. If attendance rules change for the next school year, districts will need time to plan on how to take attendance, and track chronically absent students, especially if students continue learning from home even part-time.

Instructional Time

As with attendance, Colorado gave districts a blanket waiver on instructional time this spring. By law, Colorado school districts are supposed to offer students 1,080 hours of instruction or 160 days of learning per year. Draft guidance issued this week notes that the state is unlikely to give another such waiver. That would mean districts may have to do more to prove students are engaged in learning for certain periods of time. During remote learning in the last two months, some schools were requiring students to do work from home for only a couple hours per day.

At least one lawmaker, Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, has expressed on social media an interest in making changes to permanently focus on “student performance, not seat time.”

Graduation Requirements

In Colorado, graduation requirements are set by districts. But the state approved requirements that students, starting with next year’s seniors, show a minimum proficiency in English and math. The state did not tell districts how students must show that proficiency, but instead offered a menu of ways districts could offer for students to prove that knowledge.

Among those options was passing the SAT with a certain score in their junior year. Since those tests were cancelled this spring, some district leaders have expressed concern that entering seniors have a limited time to pick another option to meet graduation requirements they previously expected to have already completed.

Other than tests, which may be interrupted again next year, students also may be able to enroll in an Advanced Placement or college-level course — if offered at their school. Districts could also choose to expand state-approved options for students, but time constraints for fitting that into a student’s schedule may still be a concern. The State Board of Education could also choose to postpone the graduation requirements for another year.

Accountability

In the spring, Colorado cancelled state testing and school ratings. Typically it issues annual quality ratings for schools and districts in the fall, based on spring tests. Schools and districts that have consecutive low ratings risk having the state step in with orders for how to improve. This year, that won’t be a concern for schools and districts.

Some educators want to extend that pause. The Colorado Association of School Executives recently asked the state Education Department to continue the pause for two additional years, given the “ongoing effects” of the pandemic and the interruption it has caused for schools. But accountability is written into state law. Lawmakers are back in session, but it is unclear if they will address accountability.

The issue also has federal implications. The federal Department of Education requires that states evaluate and rate their schools and districts annually. This past year, the federal government granted state waivers, but it is unclear if it would again.

Teacher Evaluations

Another issue that caused a lot of uncertainty is whether teachers would have to be evaluated based on online teaching. The state did not require evaluations this year, but left decisions up to local districts and their teachers unions. The question will come up again next year.

Colorado’s controversial educator effectiveness law requires that all teachers be evaluated every year and that half of their evaluation be tied to student test results. Teachers need those evaluations to earn non-probationary status. Colorado lawmakers have proposed changes to Colorado’s teacher evaluation law in recent years, and some might try to bring it up again now that they’re back in session.

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