Are Children Learning

Long summer and fall ahead for testing task force

Members of the 15-member task force assigned to review Colorado’s school testing system, whose names were released Wednesday, represent a fairly wide spectrum of backgrounds and include a number of familiar figures.

The Standards and Assessments Task Force could play an important role in the growing debate over the role and form of testing.

Creation of the task force was something of a compromise plan for the Democratic majority (and a few Republicans) during 2014 legislative session.

Some conservative Republicans, backed by a variety of citizen groups, pushed bills to delay rollout of the new PARCC tests next year or allow districts to opt out of tests. And some Democrats tried a last-minute rollback of the new social studies tests.

The delay and opt-out proposals had no chance of passage, given potential disruption to the state’s accountability system if such measures were passed. (The social studies gambit also failed.) But Democratic leaders needed to show some response to rising public and teacher criticism of testing, so conversion of the opt-out bill into a task force measure provided a way to do that.

The 15-member panel’s assignment is to study the impact of testing on teaching time, the interaction of testing with the state accountability and educator evaluation systems and the feasibility of waiving some assessment requirements, among several other issues. (Get more information on the task force in this legislative staff memo.)

As is the case with most legislative task forces (and permanent state boards and commissions), members had to reflect a careful balance of interest groups and professional backgrounds. The appointment power also was divided, with members being named by all four political party leaders in the legislature and by the chair of the State Board of Education.

Here are the members, organized by who appointed them:

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver

  • Bill Jaeger, Colorado Children’s Campaign vice president, representing organizations that advocate for low-performing students
  • Donna Lynne, chair of Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, representing business
  • Dan Snowberger, Durango superintendent, representing administrators
  • Ilana Spiegel, leader of the activist parent group SPEAK, representing parents

Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora

  • Adele Bravo, Boulder Valley teacher, representing teachers
  • Lisa Escarcega, Aurora chief accountability officer, representing administrators
  • Nancy Tellez, Poudre board member, representing school boards
  • Susan Van Gundy, associate director of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the group that developed the new tests Colorado is supposed to start using in 2015

Paul Lundeen, Republican chair of State Board of Education

  • John Creighton, St. Vrain board member representing school boards
  • Tony Lewis, executive director Donnell-Kay Foundation and Colorado Charter School Institute board member, representing CSI
  • Syna Morgan, Douglas County chief performance officer, representing administrators

House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland

  • Luke Ragland, vice president of Colorado Succeeds, representing business
  • Dane Stickney, Strive Prep Charter School teacher, representing teachers

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs

  • Jay Cerny, CEO of Cherry Creek Academy, representing charter schools
  • Bethany Drosendahl, author and educator, representing parents

The legislation that created the task force, House Bill 14-1202, also allocated $142,750 to the Department of Education to coordinate the group’s work, commission a testing cost study, pay for a separate review analyzing how different testing schemes would affect the accountability system and obtain legal advice on the implications of letting parents and districts opt out of some testing requirements.

CDE also has an outside consulting group, WestEd, reviewing the administration of online science and social studies tests last spring.

The task force and CDE are to report findings and recommendations to the legislature by next Jan. 31, giving the 2015 session plenty of time of consider the issue.

The November elections could provide a wild card in the process, as the terms of the testing debate could change if Republicans take control of the governor’s office, or of one or both houses of the legislature.

A poll released Tuesday showed Gov. John Hickenlooper and Republican Bob Beauprez neck and neck. Republicans are pushing hard to flip the Senate, where Democrats only have a one-vote majority, but they face longer odds in trying to take the House.

The task force’s first meeting will be July 15, at a time and place to be determined. (Parts of the Capitol are under renovation this summer, so staff still are trying to find an available meeting room.)

Learn more about Colorado’s testing system, planned changes and about the debate in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:


School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.