tick tock

Fewer Colo. school districts on watch list, but looming accountability tests remains for some

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

The number of Colorado school districts on a state accountability watch list dropped this year, but eight school systems still face looming sanctions if they don’t improve soon.

And the path for those districts off the watch list will get trickier this year due to a change in the testing system that produces most of the data the state uses to rate schools. Without that standard measure, districts looking for a higher rating will be required to submit their own data to prove their improvement efforts have worked.

Seven school districts — including two small rural systems that had reached the end of the state’s school improvement timeline — moved off the watch list this year. The two rural districts, Vilas and Karval, narrowly missed state sanctions by shuttering their low-performing online schools.

Since 2009, the Colorado Department of Education has reviewed school district performances annually. The results are based on data from the state’s standardized exams, ACT scores, drop-out and graduation rates. School districts are classified in five categories, the highest being “accredited with distinction” and the lowest being “turnaround.”

School districts that land in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face a loss of accreditation.

Do your homework
• Find your school district’s accreditation
• Review CDE staff’s slideshow presentation

In total, eight districts are entering the final year of their timeline and face a loss of accreditation. They include Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools, and Julesburg Schools.

Aurora Public Schools, the largest system on the accountability timeline, has two years to improve.

“District leaders are working closely with teachers and school leaders to continue to increase student achievement and close achievement gaps,” said Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent. “Our expectation is to make significant gains that move us out of priority improvement status.”

All of the school districts that are being monitored by the Colorado Department of Education serve large populations of poor and Latino students. But not all school districts that serve those populations are on the clock, state officials pointed out. They highlighted the Center Consolidated School District as a medium-size system that has improved student achievement. Center has a higher concentration of poverty than any other school district in the state. More than 90 percent of their students qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices.

School districts being monitored
Aurora Public Schools, year 4
Adams County 14 (Commerce City), year 5
Ignacio 11, year 5
Julesburg, year 5
Aguilar, year 5
Montezuma Cortez, year 5
Pueblo City Schools, year 5
San Juan BOCES, year 1
Sheridan City Schools, year 5
Adams County 50 (Westminster), year 5

Because of the forthcoming data gap between the two assessments, the Colorado General Assembly passed a law this year that allowed the state to use this year’s accreditation ratings for tow years.

However, districts may submit additional data, such as internal assessments that are supposed to gauge student progress throughout the year, to the department to have their accreditation rating reconsidered. This year 19 districts submitted such a request; 16 were approved. Due to the gap, state officials are expecting a great number of requests next year.

“We have limited information,” said  Keith Owen, CDE’s deputy commissioner. “A request to reconsider is an opportunity for the school and district to help paint an accurate picture. It’s a great system that Colorado has that not every state utilizes across the country. None of this is perfect, but the whole goal of [accreditation] is to have public accountability with how schools are preforming.”

Overall, most of the state’s school districts should be commended for improving or maintaining student achievement levels despite a heavy burden to implement more laws and policies, like teacher evaluations, Owen said.

“There are a lot of districts doing hard work in the midsts of substantial transition across the state with laws passed, five, six, seven years ago,” Owen said in an interview. “The amount of pressure those laws put on districts — but that we’re still seeing districts making improvement over time, it sends a strong message about the kind of improvement going on in the state.”

The board asked department staff various questions regarding the accreditation process, flexibility around the law, and what they were doing to assist school districts that are at risk of losing their accreditation.

In a rare moment, Elaine Gantz Berman, a Denver Democrat, agreed with chairman Paul Lundeen, an Colorado Springs Republican, that the state should research and develop flexibilities for school districts that are performing well. Ideally, that would allow the department to target more of their efforts on low performing school districts, Gantz Berman said.

“I think there would be strong consensus from the board that it’d be great if you could focus your efforts on the school districts that need the most,” she said.

testing questions

‘The needle hasn’t moved’: Regents sound off on racial gaps in 2018 test scores

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

New York State’s top education policymakers raised concerns Monday about whether the state is doing enough to address persistent racial gaps on state exams.

The discussion was the first opportunity the Board of Regents have had to discuss the results of last school year’s reading and math tests since they were released late last month. And while the Regents seemed to be in agreement that the gaps are problematic, there was little discussion of what to do about it beyond requesting more data.

The test scores released in September show just under 35 percent of black students statewide are proficient in reading, 17 points below their white peers. In math, the gap jumps to 25 points. (The gaps are similar for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.)

The gaps are even wider in New York City.

Regent Judith Johnson, who has repeatedly criticized the state tests for not reflecting student learning across different ethnic groups, said the education department is still not doing enough to analyze the causes of racial differences in proficiency on the grades 3-8 exams. Those gaps, Johnson said, will bring down the competitiveness of the American workforce.

“It’s absolutely based on poverty and color,” Johnson said. “That has not changed and that begs for analysis at this point.”

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia acknowledged “troubling gaps” on student achievement, but also said state officials, including the Regents, have been working on it for years. She also pushed back on the idea that the tests themselves aren’t useful, arguing they draw attention to issues of inequity.

“If we didn’t have an opportunity to see this, it wouldn’t be as high up in our mindsets,” she said.

While some gaps have narrowed slightly among certain student groups, it’s happening at a glacial rate, said Regent Luis Reyes. He pointed to a two-year period where the gap between Hispanic students and their white peers shrunk by about 1 percent on both math and English tests.

“One percent is not a revolution, it’s not a reform, it’s not a transformation,” Reyes said. “It’s ice age.”

Reducing an emphasis on state tests in how officials judge overall school performance is part of the education department’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In coming up with school ratings, officials will consider factors such as how often students are suspended, are absent from class, and how prepared they are for life after high school.

Regent Kathy Cashin said she wants to see teaching and learning take the main stage of the state’s education agenda. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” she said.

Elia emphasized that the test includes an essay and that it’s not “just a multiple choice test.” And she reminded the Regents that the math and English assessments are required by the federal government, but there are options to consider performance-based testing on science exams. Elia has previously shown some interest in an alternative science test.

Regents rundown

As elections approach, New York’s top education policymakers begin to outline legislative priorities

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse

New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up to discuss their legislative wishlist for next year’s session, just as the political balance of the state legislature could turn on its head.

The state’s Board of Regents will kick off the discussion Monday by reviewing last year’s priorities — everything from bullying prevention programs to expanding access to advanced coursework — and propose tweaks and additions.

They’ll also discuss what to prioritize in their overall funding request for education across the state (the board has not yet requested a specific dollar amount). Last year the Board asked for a $1.6 billion increase, which is less than the $1 billion boost that was ultimately approved. But the if the state Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans for years, flips to Democrats, it could reshape the annual budget dance just as it kicks into gear.

Also on the Regents agenda: a discussion of state test scores that were released late last month. However, state officials have repeatedly said the results do not offer much insight about whether student learning is improving across the state because of changes to the test that make results hard to compare to previous years.

Here’s what you should know in advance of the meeting.

Legislative chatter

Officials are set to discuss last year’s legislative priorities and how close they got to their goals.

One priority from that cycle, for instance, was to address the yawning gap in access to advanced coursework in different school districts across the state, a top concern of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well. Among wealthy suburban school districts, students were roughly five times as likely to have access to six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate offerings as students in New York City, according to a report released earlier this year. (The city is also launching a pilot program to allow virtual classes in advanced subjects at 15 high schools in the Bronx, under the new teachers contract.)

The Regents requested $3 million in grants to help expand offerings among high-needs districts, and wound up with $500,000, according to state documents. (Though the board doesn’t have any formal power over the legislature, they can help sway the outcome as the state’s top education policymaking body.)

They’ll also discuss a slew of other priorities, including how to support new intervention plans for New York’s lowest-performing schools that were developed as part of the state’s compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

And the Regents will talk about progress on their efforts to support English learners; they have previously asked for funding to translate Regents exams into Spanish so students can better demonstrate skills beyond their proficiency in English.

Other issues, beyond these priorities, may surface in discussions Monday as well.

The board isn’t expected to approve a full set of legislative goals until December, and it’s possible that a wave election could give Democrats control of the State Senate. Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa previously told Chalkbeat said she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes will lead to more funding.

Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — would require significant additional investments.

Testing testing

State and local education officials have said it’s impossible to compare the newly released results on the state English and math exams to last year’s because the test was changed — it’s administered over just two days instead of three —  but several lingering issues could surface.

In New York City, there are still significant score gaps between white and black students. Almost 67 percent of white students passed their English tests, close to double the percentage of black students. And almost 64 percent of white students passed math, compared to about a quarter of black students.

And even though Regents reduced the number of testing days, opposition to the exams continued, with about the same percentage of New York students deciding to opt out as did the previous year. In New York City, where most kids usually take the test, there was a slight uptick in students who sat out.

This comes after the state agreed to soften certain penalties for schools where opt-out rates remained consistently high.

Some Regents remain committed to computer-based testing, and the state hopes to eventually expand the practice to all students. Some are concerned about the nature of the exams, whether they are fair to English language learners, and whether the tests help perpetuate disparities.

State education officials have shown some interest in different approaches to testing. Regents decided not to apply for a federal waiver to pursue “innovative” exams — involving essays, projects, and tasks — but they did form a work group that is partially focusing on testing.