Colorado will resume issuing ratings of schools and districts this year after a two-year pandemic pause, but the accountability clock — a timeline for struggling districts that counts down to state intervention — won’t pick up again until the 2023-24 school year.
In the meantime, more schools could qualify for financial assistance to improve student learning.
That’s the plan laid out in legislation that received unanimous approval in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday and appears headed toward passage in the Colorado General Assembly.
“This gets us back into our accountability system, while extending some grace to our school districts,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Rachel Zenzinger, the bill sponsor.
Colorado’s school accountability system calls for schools and districts to receive ratings based largely on student performance on standardized tests. Schools that receive one of the lowest two ratings for five years in a row face state intervention, which can include handing over management to an outside entity, or converting schools to charters, or even dissolving a school district, though that has never happened.
The state put the system on hold for the past two years. No standardized tests were given in spring 2020, and districts gave a limited set of tests last spring, with most students taking either a literacy or a math test but not both. At the same time, in many districts far fewer students took state tests last year.
All of that has generated limited data from which to draw conclusions even as many parents and advocates are concerned about the effects of disruptions on student learning.
Supporters of test-based accountability have said test data and school ratings provide critical information that can drive spending decisions at the state and local level. Many school district officials have raised concerns, though, that test data from disrupted school years doesn’t represent an accurate picture of the work happening in classrooms.
Although many advocates were bracing for a fierce debate over how and whether to resume the accountability system, organizations representing superintendents, teachers unions, and education reformers all lined up to support the bill. Zenzinger said she spent considerable time talking about the problem with people from a range of perspectives before she drafted the bill, helping to secure consensus.
The bill also aligns with the position of the State Board of Education, which oversees the accountability system.
Senate Bill 137 would have the State Board issue school and district ratings next fall based on test scores from this spring and how much students have improved from last spring, as would happen in a typical school year. However, those ratings won’t be used to move schools further along the accountability clock or start the clock for a district that wasn’t previously on the state performance watchlist.
The accountability clock won’t restart until fall 2023. When it does, the state will compare student progress from 2022 in determining new ratings but will compare the new ratings with those from 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.
The bill won’t change the status of districts and schools that are already under state improvement orders, such as Adams 14, with the State Board still having authority to determine whether districts are meeting their goals and what data supports that.
However, other districts with a low rating could present a case to the State Board of Education that they should have their rating upgraded based on factors beyond state tests. The State Board would retain the authority to make those decisions.
The bill would add an additional data point to school-level reports by noting how many students participated in state tests in the most recent year. That would provide an asterisk on the accuracy of some of the calculations, without changing how growth is calculated.
Significantly, the bill would allow more schools to qualify for school improvement grants. Now, only schools in the two lowest tiers qualify. The bill would allow schools in the middle tier to also qualify for funds. The Joint Budget Committee supported including at least $1 million in federal relief money, on top of the $4.4 million normally allocated each year.
“The bill acknowledges the reality that we’ve been experiencing for the last couple of years with the COVID pandemic, particularly the fact that we do have missing data due to the cancellation of our assessments in the spring of 2020 and some of the ongoing challenges that we’ve experienced,” State Board Chair Angelika Schroeder told legislators. “At the same time this bill does ensure that we’ll be able to provide resources to those schools and districts that need that based on this year’s assessment.”
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.